We’ll see more school choices with Rhee’s impatience

Families everywhere will benefit from Michelle Rhee’s impatience with the staid politics that interfere with new ideas in education, even if those benefits may not be entirely clear yet. Lost in the media blitz over Rhee’s latest effort to speed the transformation of public education is her support of parental choices, support that goes beyond simply calling for more charter schools.

Rhee has lent her support to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, and she made it clear yesterday that her new advocacy group, Students First, will push for similar programs. Getting states to clear the obstacles to additional charter schools and pushing for opportunity scholarships will anchor what Rhee identified as a key component of a four-part legislative agenda for the group: an expansion of school choice and competition.

Rhee understands that expanded choices in education are critical to the success of any reform, and she also knows it will take a significant grassroots effort to convince elected leaders of that. Advocates of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship went through great pains to fight for renewal of the program, only to see it flounder among the opposition of Congressional Democrats.

I recently had the pleasure of serving on a panel with Ms. Rhee at the Republican Governors Association meeting in San Diego, where I played a video of what was inarguably the largest rally for parental choice in the nation. Last spring, more than 5,500 parents, students and educators marched to the steps of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee to support an expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. These were people who boarded buses as early as midnight the night before to travel hundreds of miles to let their voices be heard. At the end of the three minute video, Rhee said, “we needed that in D.C.”

The lesson in Florida bears repeating. When the state Legislature created the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2001, the program had the support of just one Democrat. Last spring, after those thousands of supporters thundered on the Capitol grounds, the program’s expansion – the scholarship today serves 33,000 low-income children – passed with nearly half the Democrats, a majority of the Black Caucus and all but two members of the Hispanic Caucus.

I am confident that if anyone can replicate that political success nationally and tear down the traditional divisions, it’s Rhee. She’ll need the grassroots support seen in Florida to shine a spotlight on the cognitive dissonance too often seen among state lawmakers and Congressional leaders who say they support “public” choices but not “private” learning options. Given the media buzz surrounding her efforts now, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Additionally, I’m pleased that Oprah Winfrey has taken a bold step in advocating for reform initiatives like Rhee’s. Her promotion of the film, “Waiting for Superman,” and her well-publicized hosting of Rhee yesterday is notable. Four years ago, nearly 2,500 people visited the Florida Supreme Court to support the Opportunity Scholarship that existed in the state then, and parents wrote postcards to Oprah asking her to take up their cause. A representative of the show at the time told them it was too political.

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BY John Kirtley

Chairman of Florida scholarship organization for low-income students, Vice Chair of American Federation For Children, a national parental choice organization

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