Educational Rot in our Nation's Capital

Republicans are riding to the rescue of Washington, D.C.’s academically abused government-school students. President Bush has allocated $75 million in his Fiscal 2004 budget to fund voucher programs in seven or eight cities, including Washington.

Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake (R.) has introduced the five-year, $45-million D.C. School Choice Act to provide vouchers for up to 8,300 students in the D.C. Public Schools.

Rather than applaud higher funds and broader choices, however, local officials sound as if Republicans gave kids poisoned apples.

"The mayor does not support public funds for vouchers in private schools," said Mayor Anthony Williams’ spokesman Tony Bullock last month.

"Vouchers drain critical dollar from neighborhood schools," D.C.’s Democratic congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote Education Secretary Rod Paige February 4.

Never mind that Bush, Flake and Gregg offer new money atop the D.C. Public School (DCPS) budget. Like ice cream a la mode, it nibbles nothing from the pie it adorns.

Norton also hopes to "avoid the bitterness of the voucher fights that were prompted by congressional attempts to force vouchers on the District in the recent past." (In 1998, President Clinton vetoed a bipartisan bill that, like Flake’s, offered low-income students vouchers between $3,750 and $5,000 redeemable at public, private or parochial campuses.)

Oddly enough, DCPS insiders inadvertently make the case for crossing the Red Sea to a voucher plan. School officials are among the system’s most brutal critics.

Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz called about half of DCPS’ teachers incompetent. "It’s a large percentage," she told the Washington Post‘s editorial board in remarks published Feb. 22, 2001. "It’s probably around 50%."

Hearing this, former Washington Teachers’ Union President Barbara Bullock lifted off like an al-Samoud missile. "That’s just like saying all blacks folks steal," she fumed.

(Bullock subsequently resigned and is being investigated for allegedly diverting $5 million in union dues to purchase such items as a $500 pen she reportedly gave Mayor Williams, $11,000 in shoes and $500,000 in custom-tailored garments.)

Cafritz clarified that "I mean it about high schools." She added: "About half of our high school teachers are not really masters of the content they teach." Cafritz also lamented that Washington’s schools endured "a total and complete disintegration of a system that has happened over the last 30 years."

Superintendent Paul Vance also seems to be on truth serum. "In the District, historically, you haven’t had A-tier teachers," he told the Post. "You have what we would call in other school system B- and C-tier teachers. When you’ve got a C-tier teacher, they are teachers who could not get jobs anyplace else, so they hired them here."

Last October 18, Thomas Jones, principal of Rudolph Elementary School, complained that textbooks had not arrived six weeks into the semester.

"This is nothing new for D.C. schools," he told the Post.

School board member Tommy Wells criticized Cato Institute education analyst Casey Lartigue in the December 2 Post. Wells called DCPS "a broken school system" that is "racked by decades of neglect and mismanagement."

As DCPS’ population dwindles, Mayor Williams sounds puzzled by spiraling budget demands.

If anything glitters, it is DCPS’ till. Ranked above the 50 states in expenditures, the National Education Association (NEA) says DCPS spent $13,078 per-pupil in 2000-2001, (versus a $7,463 U.S. average). That bought it a 40% dropout rate. Washington’s private-school students averaged 1,195 points (out of 1,600) on the 2002 SAT. While the U.S. average was 1,020, DCPS averaged 796, down from 822 in 2000.

In December 1997, DCPS’ then-chief academic officer, Arlene Ackerman, warned that Washington’s students faced "educational genocide." Six years later, they remain equally imperiled.