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May 20, 1998

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First Lady
May 20, 1998

America is facing a critical choice -- whether to honor and strengthen our commitment to our public schools or to retreat.

A truly free public education is a cornerstone of our democracy. Nearly 90 percent of the 52.2 million students in this country are enrolled in public schools.

Expanding the commitment to public schools is one of my husband's highest priorities. He has proposed legislation that would reduce class size in the early grades, modernize and build new schools, implement high standards of achievement and help every child read independently by the end of third grade.

It would also link every school to the Internet, end the practice of automatically promoting every student and give communities the flexibility to decide what their schools need.

Some members of Congress, however, have chosen to reject these meaningful improvements in favor of political expediency. They want to take dollars away from the public schools and use them to pay for private-school vouchers.

One proposal that has passed both houses of Congress would provide vouchers of up to $3,200 for private- or parochial-school tuition to approximately 2,000 families in the District of Columbia.

Many of you have read news reports about the dismal state of the D.C. public schools, sadly referred to as among the worst in the nation. We must fix them, but vouchers are not the solution.

Vouchers divert attention and taxpayer dollars away from the schools that serve the vast majority of our students just when they need these resources to make fundamental changes. That's why my husband has promised to veto the bill.

Recently, a new superintendent took over the reins of D.C.'s troubled schools and has already begun to bring much-needed reform to the system. Now is not the time to siphon off desperately needed money for a program that will affect at most 3 percent of the system's 70,000 students at a cost of more than $6 million.

Vouchers will not bring one more math teacher into the classroom or repair one broken window. Vouchers will not restore art, music or after-school activities. And vouchers will not rekindle a sense of pride in our public schools.

Vouchers raise fundamental questions about whether the federal government can use taxpayer dollars to send children to religious schools. And vouchers provide funds to schools that are not accountable for what their students learn or how the schools manage their money.

The evidence is mixed on whether children who participate in voucher programs actually do better in school. The most recent study of Cleveland's voucher program concludes that students who use vouchers do no better than their counterparts in public school.

At a time in our nation's history when it is critical for every student to have better teachers, higher standards and more modern facilities, vouchers drain our public schools. Giving a few students a ticket out of the public schools is the wrong approach. The right approach is to fix the schools that are failing and to offer choices within the public school system.

We know how to fix our schools.

More than 10 years ago, Chicago's schools were singled out as the nation's worst. That's when the Mayor, the business community and parents got serious about fixing their schools. This week, Mayor Daley announced that test scores in the city have risen for the third straight year -- proof, he says, of the success of tough reform initiatives. The Mayor singled out DuSable High School, which has created a "culture of reading," including a special summer reading program and security guards who quiz kids on vocabulary words in the halls.

We also know how to provide meaningful choices for parents within the public schools -- such as charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that give parents and teachers the opportunity to design their own programs but are open to all students and strictly accountable for the education of their students. When my husband was elected, there was one charter school in the country. Today, under his leadership, there are almost 800.

Bill and I have visited charter schools all over the country that are leading the way in offering important choices to public-school students and their parents. Many of these schools are meeting the needs of students who had trouble succeeding in more traditional public schools.

As we prepare to enter the new millennium, we can choose to walk away from our public schools or we can choose to roll up our sleeves and make them work again. Let's not opt to give just a few students a way out at the expense of giving every student a way up.


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