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Students need choice: ZIP codes shouldn’t predetermine students’ success

Posted May 20, 2014, at 1:46 p.m.
Last modified May 20, 2014, at 4:18 p.m.
George Danby

In the state of Maine you’re more likely to bump into a Democrat or independent than a Republican, so being a black Republican and living in a town that has not elected a Republican state representative in decades, I understand what it’s like to be in the minority. But being in the minority didn’t stand in my way when I ran for public office last November.

As a young black college student from a single-parent family, I had a unique perspective to offer in the political arena. But what people cared about most was my commitment to education. When I ran, I advocated for better schools — in my community and for all students. The voters of Old Town agreed “every student matters,” and we should always be diligent in improving our school systems.

That starts with expanding school choice, giving families educational options and giving students access to a quality education. We must advance school choice in all its forms: public schools, charter schools, private schools, parochial schools, homeschooling and online academies.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011, for the first time in history, the majority of babies born in the U.S. were babies of color. That means the future viability of our communities and our republic will be determined by the opportunities we provide for those children. And education is the key to their success.

What we now have is an urgent need to close the achievement gap and ensure that our young people are graduating from school and prepared to succeed as adults. Nationally, only 52 percent of black males and 58 percent of Latino males graduate from high school in four years, while 78 percent of white males graduate in four years. We can and must do better. Every child deserves access to a high-quality education, so we must champion strategies that address the urgent educational needs of our community. This starts with expanding school choice.

Why, you may ask? There are several reasons. First, because of the diversity of schoolchildren, we need to be mindful of different learning styles, abilities and interests. It is crucial to give students more options when it comes to the learning environments and learning styles that work for them. What works in Old Town may not work in Chicago or Charlotte, North Carolina.

Second, school choice allows parents to choose the school for their children, so students’ future success isn’t determined by the ZIP code where they grow up. We need to empower parents by giving them the option to choose what’s best for their children. Sadly, right now, not every child has a fair shot, and one reason is too many young students are stuck in failing schools where they don’t receive the quality of education they deserve.

Disappointingly, President Barack Obama’s administration has not done enough to support parents who want to have options for their children’s education. In fact, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against a scholarship program in Louisiana that African-American families supported. Republicans can play a major role in fixing this problem and have been out front, standing with parents and students on this issue.

This month the Republican-led House of Representatives passed the Success and Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act, which allows successful charter school models to be replicated nationwide to support choice, innovation and excellence in education.

School choice helps children rise from poverty by allowing students to attend quality schools when others are failing. When schools compete, students win. Funding should go where students want to learn, not to schools they are forced to attend.

A clear choice has been placed in front of us: Either we allow the federal government to enact laws that force students through unsuccessful programs, or we celebrate the variety of successful schools and empower parents and local governments in making the right choices for their children’s future.

Lee Jackson of Old Town serves on the board of directors of Regional School Unit 34. He is a student at the University of Maine, a Maine Republican Party committeeman and he was recently named a Republican National Committee Rising Star. This OpEd first appeared in The Root.

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