By CSF President Darla Romfo
Last night I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion featuring Eva Moskowitz and Michelle Rhee, two of the country’s leading education reformers. Eva founded the Success Charter Network, and Michelle, the former Washington, DC schools chancellor, has founded a new education advocacy group, Students First.
During the Q & A session, I had the opportunity to ask Eva Moskowitz about this week’s Supreme Court decision (which upheld the tuition tax credit program in Arizona) and its importance for educational freedom and parental choice.
Not surprisingly, Eva, who has long been ecumenical about supporting all forms of parental choice, was very supportive of the decision. She said she is in favor of excellence in education across the board, regardless of whether the delivery system is a zoned public school, a public charter school, or a private school. Eva stressed the urgency of getting children a good education now, because even the youngest children have trouble catching up if they fall behind because of a poor teacher or an ineffective school.
However, I was very pleasantly surprised when Michelle Rhee made a point of adding to Eva’s response. Michelle said that as a lifelong Democrat, she originally did not agree with vouchers or other forms of parental choice that allowed public funds to be used to educate children in private schools. However, her experience in the D.C. public schools forced her to rethink her position. She spoke about meeting struggling families who had tried their best to navigate the public system to find a good school for their children, but who had failed to win spots at high-performing charter schools, or at open seats at public schools in more affluent parts of the city.
Michelle underscored Eva’s point about the urgent need for each child to get the best education, even while we work towards long-term efforts to improve all schools. As she said, telling a needy parent to wait five years isn’t going to help her child.
Realizing that she couldn’t force parents to send their children to schools she wouldn’t send her own daughters to, she asked, “How could I sit there and deny these families a voucher to a Catholic school where they’d get a great education?”
She went on to add that she asked people how they felt watching the movie “Waiting for Superman” when one of the children had to leave Catholic school because her mother couldn’t pay the tuition. And when people told her they wanted to write a check to cover the tuition, she replied, “That’s a voucher, honey!”
I was very encouraged to hear such an open approach to making education better for many more families. At CSF, we do what Eva and Michelle were talking about. We provide scholarships that allow parents to give their children a quality education now, when they need it the most. Tax credit programs could allow a program like CSF to go to scale. For example, while CSF is helping almost 26,500 children nationwide, a tax credit program in Florida allows 33,000 children in that state alone to attend private schools.
I can only hope that more reformers and public officials will join Eva Moskowitz and Michelle Rhee and open up educational opportunities to many more children.