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School choice: “The Civil Rights issue of our time.’’

• McKenzie Snow

Building on the momentum of the sixth annual National School Choice Week (NSCW) last week, a hearing in the United States House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee was held Wednesday morning. “We should celebrate school choice all 52 weeks of the year,” Rep. Jared Polis, D-Co. said Wednesday.

“I believe [school choice] is the civil rights issue of our time,” Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind. said. “Your opportunity to live the American dream…it all starts with an education. If we want to determine what the best option is for a child, we ought to ask their parent.”

Gerard Robinson testifyingRep. Katherine Clark D-Ma. agreed with Messer. “This is the civil rights issue of our time—access to quality education for every single student, no matter what their income is, no matter what their zip code is,” Clark said.

In his opening testimony, Gerard Robinson, resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute, said, “School choice is not a sound bite; it’s a social movement.” Since 1990, more than 40 states have adopted different types of school choice legislation, Robinson explained. He went on to outline major forms of school choice including charter schools, vouchers, tax credits and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

Denisha Merriweather attested to the impact of school choice in her own life. While bouncing between low-performing public schools, “I thought school was a punishment for being a kid,” Merriweather recounted. After twice failing the third grade, Merriweather received a scholarship for private school tuition through the Florida Tax‐Credit Scholarship program and began attending a local private school in the sixth grade. Now, she’s the first in her family to graduate from Denisha Merriweather at 2014 summithigh school, and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in social work. Merriweather told the committee, “The cycle of poverty is ending in my family because of the Florida Tax‐Credit Scholarship. I received a quality education and, because of my example, my siblings are now seeing how to take advantage of educational opportunities.”

Denisha Merriweather’s guardian was able to make a needed change in her life, but many parents still do not have that choice. North Carolina State Rep. Rob Bryan—the primary sponsor of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship law which provides vouchers to about 6,000 students—asked committee members to remember the individuals behind the statistics. “I have had to look these parents [of the 13,000 applicants waiting for a scholarship] in the eyes. They can wait no longer.”

After sharing successes of school choice in his home state, Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., asked Robinson, “Those are the facts. Why do we keep debating this?” Robison replied, “It’s about power. And that’s what the discussion is about—who’s going to control public dollars and for what reason.”

The answer is simple enough: Parents should have the power to pursue the best education for their unique child through school choice. National School Choice Week may be over, but the struggle for school choice is year-round for those who care about giving every child an opportunity at an excellent education.

Messer summed it up, saying, “As we, frankly, dither, millions of kids in this country are going to go to a school where they don’t have a chance to succeed. And we can do better.”

To learn more about School Choice, visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library.

About the author

McKenzie Snow @mcksnow

McKenzie Snow is a Policy Analyst in Educational Choice for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Previously, McKenzie worked at the Charles Koch Foundation where she helped guide investments in university research centers. She was a lecturer at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where she was the recipient of a Fulbright grant. As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, she pursued a master’s degree in International Development at Lund University in Sweden. McKenzie earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Kansas State University.