What Would Really Help Ty'Sheoma Bethea: School Choice

By JEANNE ALLEN Washington
Sunday, March 1, 2009

What if Ty'Sheoma Bethea had a choice? Ty'Sheoma is the young lady who sat with first lady Michelle Obama when President Obama spoke to Congress Tuesday night. She had reached the president through a letter about her school, the ceiling that leaks, the walls that shake when trains go by, the poor education it provides. She warmed his heart and ours.

Ty'Sheoma's world is not unlike the District's before charter schools and scholarships, when enormous effort was made to improve schools, to no avail. It wasn't until these choices were available that people could see how financing a broken system, without accountability, does nothing. Now, charter schools and the scholarship program are not only educating nearly 35 percent of D.C. students but also ushering in a new wave of public school reform that would never have been on the table had the arrival of choice not shown the way and shed light on the failings of the system and its protectors.

What if Ty'Sheoma had a charter school? Poverty abounds in her home town of Dillon, S.C. Its school board and citizens have the power to start charter schools. But school boards fight their creation, claiming they undermine public schools. Charters use education money with one goal, to educate. If they don't succeed, they don't stay open.

Dillon's per-pupil expenditure -- $8,700 -- is higher than the national average. That funds more than 50 staff positions at her J.V. Martin Junior High School (including four custodians). That's a student-to-staff ratio of 9 to 1, meaning there are more than twice as many adults serving students as at most schools in the country. What if Ty'Sheoma had an opportunity scholarship, which would send $7,500 to the private school of her family's choosing? Those schools are not lush, but they are well-maintained, safe and successful in educating children. If Ty'Sheoma could vote with her feet, too, she'd find her allotted money spent where it should be, on ensuring student achievement. Her district might just make changes in response, lifting all schools.

But Ty'Sheoma doesn't have choices. She's the victim of a lawsuit filed by those who are adamant that money equals education. We know from years of equity battles that education doesn't change when courts order states to spend more. Facilities may get a facelift and teachers may make more, but not because they are better; it's because they are there. With choice, Ty'Sheoma's family could evaluate a school, review the programs and the data on school performance. Ty'Sheoma could choose to attend a school that worked for her.

Ty'Sheoma Bethea doesn't know that adults work in her schools regardless of how well they do their jobs, that there are no consequences for leaky roofs. She may not know that cities like this one offer choices that provide exactly what she wants and deserves. She's been told that she is treated inequitably because the state doesn't care about kids in Dillon. So she wrote the president, who brought her to Washington and told her story and asserted that the economic stimulus legislation helps her, absent any policy changes.

The Washington that has pledged to help her wants to abolish the D.C. program that affords choices to the poorest children. I wonder, if Ty'Sheoma had written the president about how choice benefited her, whether she would have been sitting with Michelle Obama.

If Ty'Sheoma had a choice, maybe we wouldn't know her at all.

The writer is president of the Center for Education Reform.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company