Commentary

Let the Children Go

Aurelia Davis went to the Supreme Court in January to get justice for her daughter LaShonda. LaShonda was taunted by a boy in her fifth-grade class. He grabbed at her and whispered that he wanted to “get in bed” with her. Despite repeated complaints, school officials in Forsyth, Georgia, did nothing to stop the boy.

So Aurelia Davis sued the school district, claiming that under federal education laws, which prohibit sex discrimination, schools should be financially responsible for a student who sexually torments another student.

The Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical of creating what Justice Anthony Kennedy called “a federal code of conduct” for every classroom in the country. Indeed, it would be unwise for the federal courts to prescribe student conduct rather than let parents, teachers, and administrators handle those problems.

But another question was not raised before the Court: Why should a mother have to spend six years taking a case all the way to the Supreme Court to get her daughter a safe fifth grade? Why didn’t she just put LaShonda in another school? (Of course, LaShonda has long since moved on to high school, and her accused harasser has moved to another town.)

We all know the answer. Students are assigned to schools by the government, and in most cases the only alternative to the assigned school — and even the assigned classroom — is to pay for a private school. If Georgia had a school voucher program, Mrs. Davis could have told the principal, “Get this problem fixed by the end of the semester, or we’re out of here.” Instead, she had to go to the Supreme Court, where she may still not get what she wants.

Under a voucher or scholarship plan, the state or local government undertakes the responsibility of paying for the education of every child in the district, but it doesn’t require every student to attend a government-run school. Instead, each parent receives a scholarship (or voucher) that can be spent for a child’s education at the local public school, a different public school, or a private school.

Newspapers are full of stories about education problems that could be solved by the implementation of a choice plan. In November, we read of Greg Nelson, who had recently moved to the Washington, D.C., area. He chose to live in a distant suburb because he preferred the smaller schools there. Research shows the benefits of smaller schools, and it’s unfortunate that many school districts continue to build schools too large to provide the personal attention that children need. But if Virginia had a scholarship system, Nelson could live where he wanted to, and still choose the kind of school he wanted his children to attend.

Not long ago, the Baltimore Sun ran this headline: “It’s a school, but the aura is of prison.” The horrifying front-page article told how Southern High School in Baltimore keeps its doors and windows bolted to try to keep out intruders and control violence. But some students hide out in the stairwells, where guards rarely patrol and where the floors are covered in “cigarette butts, broken glass and chicken bones — muck enough to cause more than one student to fall.” The principal says, “I’m sure there are streets in Baltimore you won’t walk down. I ask my students not to go into Stairwells 5 and 6 for the same reason. It’s about personal safety.”

Student Sandy Pearce says, “Look at the words, ‘lockdown,’ ‘work release’ — it’s like we go to a jail.” Wouldn’t it be good if Sandy could use her scholarship to go to another school? But under the current system, all she can do is circulate a petition for better conditions.

Critics of the voucher system say that we shouldn’t “give up” on public schools, we should all pull together to make them better. That’s fine rhetoric for a campaign speech. But a child will be six years old only once, and will be in elementary school for only a few years — while changing an unwieldy public school system takes much time and effort.

Why should Aurelia Davis have to spend years fighting a legal battle to get a safe school for her daughter? Why should Greg Nelson have to endure a long commute to find a school district he likes? Why should Sandy Pearce be stuck in a school where her life is literally in danger?

Parents and children suffer while politicians and school administrators say, “Give us just a little more time. We’re setting up a task force that will devise a selection process for a comprehensive commission that will hold hearings to develop a master plan to implement a scheduled improvement in our community’s schools.”

Meanwhile, children suffer in schools that don’t fit their values, don’t nurture their intellectual and personal development, and may even be unsafe. Let the students get a better education. Let the families choose. Let the children go.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and editor of Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City and The Libertarian Reader.