Low-Income Scholarships on the Rise


Just imagine how terrible it would be if an impoverished child going to a drug-infested, poorly performing public school were given an opportunity to attend a school of his parents' choice.

Just imagine how terrible it would be if an impoverished child going to a drug-infested, poorly performing public school were given an opportunity to attend a school of his parents’ choice.

This is what the U.S. Secretary of Education and leaders of America’s teacher unions are today saying when it comes to providing choice, vis-a-vis publicly-financed vouchers or scholarships, to low-income parents.

In what has the dynamics of a David-and-Goliath-type battle, school choice is shaping up — in the words of Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.— as the “civil rights issue of the 1990s.” And for good reason.

Low-income scholarships facilitate an immediate and cost-effective way for students to go to a much better school. Perhaps more importantly, they provide tremendous leverage for the public schools to undertake needed reforms that benefit the children who, according to choice opponents, “are left behind.” (This curious and common choice of words by scholarship opponents shows their tendency not even to try to refute the expectation that children going to a private school will obtain a better education.)

The problems in American public education are severe and require bold action to be addressed. One-third of all students are not able to do basic grade-level mathematics work. In eighth-grade math tests conducted in 1994-95, U.S. students recorded below-average results, trailing such countries as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Ireland, and Thailand. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores also have stagnated.

Leaders in the education community have chosen to engage in fear-mongering and name-calling to fight scholarship proposals. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley spent considerable time discussing vouchers/scholarships, claiming they would lead to the “balkanizing” of public education and undermine the transmission of civic values to children, threatening American democracy itself.

In a response to the Secretary’s speech, the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Secretary of Education, Monsignor Thomas J. McDade, said that he could not allow “his (Riley’s) inaccuracies and innuendoes to go unanswered.” He later graded the factual accuracy of the Secretary’s press conference as a D-minus. Meanwhile, the head of the American Federation of Teachers has referred to voucher advocates as “barbarians,” while the President of the NEA has labeled them “pushers.” These two unions, with combined local, state, and national revenues of approximately $1.2 billion, have placed the highest priority on halting the movement to scholarship/voucher programs.

The United States, in fact, is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a significant voucher or choice system for students. In other countries where choice is provided (such as Ireland, Canada, Denmark, and Sweden), the public schools receive over 90 percent of government funds. In many cases, these countries’ public schools are also achieving better test results than are schools in America.

Teachers’ unions in other countries have nowhere near the trepidation about vouchers/scholarships that our unions do. Research by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution found that of forty eight unions expressing a stand, only eleven (23 percent) strongly oppose voucher/choice systems. Seventeen (35 percent) are strongly in favor, while twenty (42 percent) are not strongly opposed or in favor, or are politically inactive.

Meanwhile, support is skyrocketing for choice programs here in the USA. A recent Gallup Poll found that 62 percent of African-Americans favored vouchers. Another poll by the joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank whose work President Clinton has praised in the past, found that 57 percent of all African-Americans favor a voucher system, including a staggering 86 percent ages twenty six to thirty five and 66 percent of those ages eighteen to twenty five.

These polls indicate that scholarship programs may one day become as politically popular as Pell Grants, which expand school choice for college students. Indeed, to many it is painfully ironic that the Clinton Administration has worked to expand tax credits and deductions for students to go to the college of their choice, but adamantly opposed such alternatives for poor children in the inner-cities and elsewhere.

Rather than being captured by those who put forward bizarre and hysterical arguments opposing poor parents’ right to choose their children’s schools, educators and political leaders should recognize that such programs will complement public education and help drive needed reforms.


Steidler, Paul E. “Low-Income Scholarships on the Rise.” Crisis (February 1998): 13.

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962


Paul F. Steidler is director of the Education Reform Project of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington, VA.

Copyright © 1998 Crisis

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