Students at DC. Options, a D.C. charter school that caters to students with learning disabilities and behavioral problems. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

While the story pointed to some concerns with the program that are worth raising, we have seen some great results for students enrolled in the program and we believe that working to ensure greater quality can move this program from good to great.

Nationwide many of our most vulnerable children are consigned to failing schools by virtue of their zip codes, and they lack the financial means and support to opt out. The implications are staggering, including high rates of joblessness, government dependency, crime, and incarceration in the Black community. The achievement gap will continue to divide the haves and have-nots in America until we strengthen the quality of our schools and make high-quality educational options accessible to those in need.

We know that parental options work. In fact, participants in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program graduate from high school at a rate of 91 percent, according to the 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. That’s 30 percent more than DC public schools. (Editor’s Note: This graduation rate is based on information reported by parents and not verified by schools, and every school sets its own graduation requirements). In addition, programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program requires every voucher student to take a national norm-referenced standardized test and report whether they are accredited or not.

While BAEO does believe scholarship program students should be assessed using the same set of assessments given to students in traditional public schools, we also strongly believe, however, that test scores should not be the only measures used in assessing quality.

The goal of a scholarship program should be two-fold:  1) to allow low-income and working class families with the resources to access an education that otherwise would be unobtainable, and 2) that participating schools actually deliver quality education.

The Value of Parent Choice Programs

To this end, BAEO believes that affording parents the right to choose and giving them the resources to opt out of schools that do not work for their children is essential to the effort to reform education in America. A strong parent choice program affords low-income and working-class families access to quality through:

·   Sound regulation that ensures that learning environments are safe, orderly, and conducive to high-quality teaching and learning, while refraining from onerous mandates and involvement in day-to-day operations
·        An assessment system that considers multiple indicators of student performance and school quality (including not only state tests, but also other quality measures, such as ACT or SAT scores for high school students, graduation rates, and the extent to which schools prepare students for success in college and careers)

·        Public reporting of assessment results to ensure transparency

·        Strict criteria for participating schools and sanctions for under-performance (i.e., a participating private school that repeatedly fails to achieve minimum performance standards at some point should be barred from accepting new scholarship students) to ensure accountability

·        Structured plans for the prudent replication of successful programs to increase the number of high-quality options available in accordance with the need and demand for such alternatives

 We encourage parents to become savvy educational consumers who will look for measurable indicators on school quality.

Through parent choice programs, policymakers can open doors that have previously been locked to families on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. But establishing these programs is not enough. There must also be adequate funding and quality to give our neediest children the opportunity to succeed.

Appropriately targeted programs enable our most vulnerable students to escape under-performing schools, changing the trajectory of their lives and gives them a real chance for a bright future.  

Campbell is the president of The Black Alliance for Educational Options.

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