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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Give everyone the same choices the Obamas have


Even before taking office, Barack Obama's choices give us a great example of a change we can make in New Hampshire just by following his example. But it's not a choice he made as President-elect; it's a choice he's making as a father.

Shortly after the election, Barack and Michelle Obama visited the White House. Like any good parents, decisions about their children were high on the agenda. The Obamas had to consider dozens of options to find the right choice for a school for their children. They settled on a well-known school in the District of Columbia, but only after considering quite a few options and deciding what was the right fit for their children's educational needs.

Figuring out what is best for your children is an important priority in anyone's life, but it's different for the Obamas. The Obamas are rich, and the education system most people of more modest means operate in doesn't offer the same choices the Obamas faced.

For most families in the country and in New Hampshire, the education decision is premade for them. If you live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., then you go to this school. No school visits, no work to find the right fit for your kids. There's one school based on your zip code.

In many cases, particularly in New Hampshire, that one geographically assigned school is a pretty good choice for most kids. But it isn't and can't be a good choice for all kids. Kids are different. Their needs are different. Their learning styles are different. Their educational achievement is different. What their parents want for them is different.

I think most of us would agree that the Obamas' experience was better. They had many choices for their kids. They could consider a variety of options and decide which school was best for their particular circumstances and their children. They did the same thing back in Chicago. They considered their options and chose a local school, but a privately run one. No one begrudges them the choice they made. Most of us admire the care they took to do what was best for their children.

They have a high family income, so they have choices. People with a low family income may have just as many educational considerations, but they have essentially no choices.

None of us would argue that the Obamas should send their kids to a school picked solely on the basis of their geography. Even if he weren't President, if they were just two professionals with kids living in that neighborhood, we would agree that the children's education would be better by considering a number of options.

That same dynamic is true of a family living in Merrimack or Dover. Assigning each child a school on the basis of which street he happens to live on is convenient, but it isn't the same as making a good choice based on the child and his needs.

There are many ways to change the system to allow more options for parents without throwing out the current system we have. In most cases, for most kids, the local neighborhood school will probably be a good choice. Wealthier parents who decide their children need something else or find a different school with a better fit can choose that option. We need to find a way to create more options for children of more limited means.

A few years ago, the Legislature considered and almost adopted a 21st century scholarship bill to increase educational choices for lower-income families. The bill would have created a fund and given scholarships to children of modest means to use at any approved school in the state. Those children and their parents would have more options, just as the Obamas do.

It doesn't have to work precisely that way. The important thing is to address the economic obstacle that creates a very different set of decisions for richer kids and poorer kids. Today, rich kids have choices; poor kids don't. Most kids, rich or poor, go to the assigned school. But in an ideal system, every parent would go through what the Obamas went through. We would consider many different options for each child and choose a school on the basis of the child, not on the basis of geography or administrative convenience. There's no reason not to make that change today in New Hampshire.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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