clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

GI BILL FOR CHILDREN WOULD MAKE U.S. SCHOOLS BEST IN THE WORLD . . .

Eighty years ago my grandfather sold his Tennessee farm and moved into Maryville so my father could go to a better school - a better public school, the same school I attended.

Thirty-five years ago, Bill Clinton's parents drove him into Hot Springs, Ark., so he could go to a better school - in his case, a private Catholic school.Turn to the real estate ads in any newspaper. You'll find something like this: "Area 2: four bedrooms. Good schools."

Ad writers know that all parents want what's best for their children. But, embarrassingly, only parents with money have choices of schools.

President Bush wants to change that. His "GI Bill for Children" would show what happens when middle and low income families have more of the same choices of all schools that my family and Bill Clinton's family had.

Specifically, the president's proposal would give a $1,000 scholarship to every child of a middle- or low-income family in a participating school district. Parents must be permitted to use the scholarship at any lawfully operated school.

In other words, this new federal money would follow the children who usually need the most help to the schools their parents feel will help them the most.

Up to $500 of each scholarship could be spent on "other academic programs" on Saturdays, after school or during the summer. This is the largest new program in this year's federal budget.

I predict public schools would attract at least 75 percent of these new dollars, but parents using vouchers - like wealthy parents - could choose any school: public, private or religious.

One thousand dollars is enough money to provide real impetus to change schools and to pay for the changes.

For example, two-thirds of all private schools are Catholic, and, on average, Catholic elementary school tuition is about $1,000.

I recall President Bush once asking, "If we have the best colleges in the world, why not the best schools?" One reason is lack of competition.

America has stumbled into this system where one government agency in each town has the franchise to create the only schools, to operate them and to tell you - unless you have money to move to another school district or to choose a private school - which government school your child may attend. Some monopolies have perpetuated schools in a sort of time warp, frustrating teachers and boring children.

When today's first-graders are ninth-graders, our schools will be dramatically different. Educational options will be available all day, every day, attracting and challenging children - kindergartens in banks, high schools in corporate headquarters and malls, new kinds of schools in museums and churches, special programs for gifted children and those with disabilities.

Without something like GI Bill scholarships, middle income and poor families will never have these options.

John Norquist, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, recently told the president, "The GI Bill for kids will hurt public schools in the same way the original GI Bill hurt public universities: It will help make them the best in the world."

(Lamar Alexander is secretary of education.)