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Why Choice is Best for Denver's Kids

By Pierre Jimenez

In recent months we have listened to presidential debates about reforming and improving K-12 education. The education debate has not, however, aroused as much emotion as social security and prescription drugs. It is ironic how people are filing massive multi-million dollar class action lawsuits suits against Ford Motor Company and the Firestone Tire Company because dozens of tires out of the millions manufactured failed. Yet, we arent nearly as troubled or inclined to take bold action when literally thousands of Latino/Chicano students fail.

If the Denver Public Schools were a private company, what would we say when only one DPS student in five can do math problems at expected grade level? When 62.3 percent of DPS children held back in grades 1-5 are Hispanic? What if the company claimed that it didn’t have enough to educate children properly? The shareholders of the company would point out that when $7,687 is annually spent per child in DPS (more than tuition at many independent schools) and total spending for 1997-98 is $479 million dollars, the problem is not mainly that spending is too low.

Neighborhoods in the Latino community were once self-contained enclaves with mom and pop grocery stores and small retail shops. Choice was nonexistent. Many major retailers didnt care to establish a presence in an area where they thought economic return would be negligible. Latinos were said to be “brand loyal.” Actually, of course, its easy to be brand loyal when we have few choices.

Today, no major vendor in America dares ignore the 500 billion dollar buying power of the Latino community. We have real competition for our dollar. The result has been better service, better goods and better pricing.

What we must now ask ourselves now is why competition and choice is desirable when it comes to buying cars, clothing or cornflakes but not when it comes to something even more important? Equity should not mean sameness.

Despite resistance from teacher union leadership (and others with vested interest) some reforms have recently been effected in Colorado. The statewide CSAP testing of students in math and reading has drawn the most attention.

Charter schools are now becoming more common. But they are far more common in the suburbs, where parents have the resources to purchase land and buildings and to find hundreds of thousands of dollars in start-up funds. It took until the year 2000 to establish two DPS charter schools in the Latino community.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere a new trend has emerged: School vouchers.

A decade ago a decent, dedicated member of our community–U. S. Secretary of Education, Dr. Lauro Cavazos–was roundly booed at Hispanic forums across the country when he dared mention vouchers. “Its a right wing plot to undermine public education,” his critics charged. Cleveland and Milwaukee, however, tell a different tale. They have vouchers programs serving thousands of poor children. Public schools there continue to operate with varying degrees of efficiency. But poor children of any color now have one more choice. Public money is not being funneled into elitist, segregationist academies.

There are issues needing discussion: Who is eligible? What about students who wish to attend a parochial school? Some are constitutional issues and will be resolved in the higher courts. It is time for school choice in Denver.

Just as there is not a Republican way to fight a fire and a Democrat way to build a street, there is not a minority or a non-minority way to educate a child. Just a good or a bad way. In January, the Colorado legislature should establish an income-based pilot voucher program for 3,000 of our Denvers children. To be eligible for a voucher, the family’s total income could not exceed 1.75 times the poverty level. There should be strict financial and performance accountability. Transportation and education of the handicapped issues must be satisfactorily addressed.

In other words, the pilot program should respond to every single justifiable criticism raised by voucher opponents. Once these criticisms are addressed, it will be time to ask the critics whether they are ready to liberate Denver’s children from the tyranny of poor education at failing schools.

Pierre Jimenez is State Director of Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation in Colorado. He wrote this article for the Independence Institute, which studies education research and reform. www.i2i.org

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

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Copyright 2000