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Opportunity for All

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Opportunity for All

How freedom of choice improves education June 20, 2014
Photo by NYC Schools

Opportunity and Hope: Transforming Children’s Lives through Scholarships, by Naomi Schaefer Riley (Rowman and Littlefield, 156 pp., $27.60)

Anthony Samuels grew up surrounded by crime in the Bronx. Without the support he received from the Children’s Scholarship Fund, launched in 1998 through the efforts of philanthropists Ted Forstmann and John Walton, he never would have been able to attend Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Instead, he tells Naomi Schaefer Riley in her new book, he surely would have ended up in a gang.

In Opportunity and Hope, Riley demonstrates how school choice can change a child’s life for the better. The stories she tells so vividly, based on extensive interviews with students such as Samuels who have benefited from being able to choose their schools, are more convincing than any political argument. They remind us that American families are divided between those who can afford to pay for private school—or move to neighborhoods where good public schools can be found—and those stuck with their local public schools, which may or may not be good. It’s a tragic fact that, in poor Hispanic and African-American communities, a child’s education and future prospects often depend on pure chance.

Riley’s subjects are among the tens of thousands of low-income children who have benefited from philanthropic scholarships to attend private schools, courtesy of a group of foundations led by CSF. During the application period for its initial set of grants in 1998, CSF received applications from 1.25 million children from 20,000 communities in all 50 states. The numbers confirm what choice advocates have said for years: low-income parents see education as the route to a better life, they understand that the school they choose makes a difference, and they want to invest in their children’s education.

In all these stories, a strong liberal arts education proves to be a game changer. A young man avoids a fight by asking himself, “What would Socrates do in a similar situation?” Riley’s subjects repeatedly emphasize the contrast between the chaos and violence in their neighborhoods and the peaceful and friendly environments of their private schools. Another recurring theme: the difference made by talented, engaged, and sympathetic teachers. Cathiana attended a Christian school in East Orange, New Jersey. She remembers that she “suddenly loved and understood math because of the way her teacher taught it, with passion and spirituality.” Haitian-born Danielle, now graduated from Notre Dame high school in Miami, says she intends to “repay the kindness that she has received” by raising awareness in her community about the transformational possibilities of a good education.

Of course, we cannot extrapolate too much from Riley’s inspirational stories. Those families who received scholarships did so only after taking the steps necessary to apply for them—they were chosen, then, partly as the result of a self-selecting process. Moreover, not all who received scholarships made it to college and beyond—school choice might yet transform the American public education system, but it can’t guarantee success for everyone. It can, however, increase opportunities and level the playing field for low-income children.

In their book and television series, Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman argued that, while economists, experts, and elected officials couldn’t deliver happiness for all, they did have the power to expand freedom of choice—a freedom, they believed, that lay at the heart of American democracy. I suspect that Naomi Schaefer Riley agrees.

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