Education & Academia

D.C. Deserves School Choice

The continuing deterioration of the public school system in the Nation’s Capital comes as no surprise to area parents and policy makers. But now, with the entire federal government in Republican hands, President Bush has the opportunity to act on his belief that parents whose children are trapped in failing public schools should be given the choice to put their children in private schools.

For years, many members of Congress, including many prominent liberals and defenders of ever-escalating public-school spending, have scrupulously kept their own children out of the District’s public schools-while denying a similar choice to local residents who don’t earn the six figure incomes that taxpayers dole out to senators and representatives.

But a recent Washington Post poll of minority residents of the District of Columbia with incomes under $50,000-a-year showed that 56% of parents would exercise school choice for their children if they were given that option. As a result, many low-income parents are looking to privately funded school voucher programs as a means of educating their children while the politicians continue to refuse to allow a full-scale choice program for District residents.

The Republican-majority Congress, which has full constitutional authority to govern the District of Columbia, could change that this year by sending a District school-choice law to President Bush for his signature. If the Democrats try to block the initiative with a Senate filibuster, the stage will be set for an all-out debate on school choice in the 2004 elections.

Public schools have consistently lagged behind private schools in the test scores achieved by their students-and this is particularly true in urban areas densely populated with low-income families. “Even successful policies need updating,” says a recent report issued by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE). “The once innovative and comprehensive [school] model has become rooted in its own traditions, outdated assumptions, and administrative inertia.”

Most local policy-makers acknowledge that the District’s public school system is failing to serve its students, but many remain reluctant to use tuition vouchers to introduce competition into the system, even though such programs have proven effective in several other major cities.

“The only way to change a large system is through pressure from the outside-for instance controlling the flow and distribution of money,” said former Milwaukee School Superintendent Howard Fuller, who presided over a school choice program. “Otherwise, the internal dynamics of the system will make change impossible.” Fuller adds, “It isn’t a matter of individual teachers and administrators being unprofessional; it’s the system itself, and how it is organized-unions, boards, federal and state regulations, mandates, court orders.”

Still, many senators and representatives continue to oppose the most effective way to mend public schools. And many members of Congress who have voted against school-choice initiatives for low-income families have sent their own children to private schools. Sen. Hilary Clinton (D.-N.Y.), for example, sent daughter Chelsea to an elite private school while the Clintons occupied the White House. Now, Mrs. Clinton argues that giving vouchers to disadvantaged children undermines the public school system.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) both voted against school choice for low-income families in the District of Columbia, but sent their own children to expensive private academies. A survey of Congress by the Heritage Foundation found that 47% of representatives and 50% of senators with school-age children affirmed that they had exercised the private-school-choice option within their own families.

Furthermore, 43% of members of the House Ways and Means Committee, 50% of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and 53% of the Senate Finance Committee with school-aged children enrolled those children in private schools. These are the committees that could advance school vouchers.

As these politicians wallow in hypocrisy, local children-with few options and limited resources-continue to fall behind.

In May 2000, the Washington Post reported that the majority of District students failed the national assessment tests. An appalling 75% of District 11th graders scored below 50% in basic math and 48% scored below 50% in basic reading. “I don’t think that the public school is giving [my child] the challenge that he wants,” a District parent told HUMAN EVENTS. “He does do his work. . . . And that’s why I’m trying to get him into a private school-because I’m sure it would be a better challenge for him.”

Other parents in the District say they are seeking vouchers to remove their children from crumbling public school facilities-a remarkable phenomenon, which of itself demands investigation, considering that the District’s school system spends more money per student than any other school system in the country.

In a focus group conducted by the Brookings Institute, one parent remarked, “My kids have come home and told me they don’t even have toilet paper.”

Other parents cited the D.C. public school system’s apparent lack of interest in actually educating their children as the reason they were seeking private school options.

Sensing the desperation of Washington-area parents, private organizations such as the Children’s Scholarship Fund have offered privately funded vouchers to low-income students in the District to attend the school of their choice. When the program began in April 1999, a full 25% of the eligible students in grades K through 12 applied to receive a voucher. Since the introduction of this program, many other organizations have begun offering $1,700 vouchers to area students. Among children participating in these programs, national assessment scores have averaged roughly 9 points higher than for local public students. Parents of these students say they are much happier now with the education their children are getting.

One District parent told HUMAN EVENTS, “At the public school . . . they passed him, because [they had the attitude] ‘I don’t want to be bothered.’ And [now] because he’s in this private school, they’re giving him the attention that he needs.”

“I had a parent-teacher conference yesterday,” the parent said, “and [the teacher] was like, “I understand, and we’re going to work with him in reading, trying to get him into reading and writing more often.”

Opponents of school vouchers point to the variety of services public schools must provide for low-income children, including instruction in English as a second language, free lunches and after school activities, which many private schools do not provide. They argue that typically the public schools have better facilities and community support programs and therefore need more money to function.

They certainly get more resources. Last year, the District of Columbia spent approximately $700 million in tax dollars to educate 70,000 public school students. That averaged out to about $10,000 per student, which is more than three times the tuition at local parochial elementary schools, and is about the same as the annual cost at some of the area’s most prestigious private prep schools.

Even with that kind of spending, school-choice opponents argue that if children are allowed to leave the system and take dollars with them, the District’s public schools will fail for lack of funding.

But even if District schools spent 30% less, they would still be spending more than the national average for public schools. In the Education Gap, William G. Howell reported that “nationwide, public schools spent, on average, $6,900 per pupil in 1998, while private school expenditures totaled just under $4,000.”

Much of the $700 million spent by the District’s public schools goes to maintaining high teacher salaries. Howell reports that “in 1998-99, private schools paid their teachers, on average only $25,000 a year, while public schools paid their teachers more than $40,000-over one-third more.” In the District, the average salary for a public school teacher last year was $48,651. Yet area educators maintain they need still more money to offer higher salaries for teachers to come to teach in the District.

It is clear that the public school system in Washington, D.C., is in serious need of repair. Area parents are begging Congress and local politicians to fix the system by giving them vouchers that will allow them to choose a competitive private school for their children. Up until now, many politicians have been too busy protecting the interests of the teachers unions to protect the opportunities of District children.

In the 1990s, Republican Congresses twice passed bills to create school-choice programs in the District of Columbia only to see those bills vetoed by President Clinton. Now we will see if a Republican Congress, working with a Republican President, can get the job done.


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