D.C. Mayor Williams: We Want School Choice

More money for public schools does not necessarily result in better educational outcomes, says Democratic District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, and that’s why he believes it is critical for Congress this year to enact a voucher program for students in the Nation’s Capital.

In an interview with HUMAN EVENTS, Williams spoke out strongly in favor of the school voucher program that fellow Democrats in the U.S. Senate are working diligently to thwart.

On September 9, the House approved an amendment to the D.C. appropriations bill by one vote (209 to 208)-confirming an earlier 205-to-203 vote (see “Roll Call: House Approves School Vouchers for D.C.”)-that provided $10 million in fiscal 2004 for a five-year pilot program. The program would provide tuition scholarships of $7,500 for District students whose families earn no more than 185% of the federal poverty level ($34,040 for a family of four).

Helping Children

The version of the D.C. appropriations bill reported to the Senate floor included $13 million for such scholarships; and, as a sweetener for Democrats, also included an extra $13 million for D.C. public schools and $13 million for D.C. charter schools. Even so, liberal Democrats, led by Sen. Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts, argued that the D.C. school choice proposal would somehow deprive public schools all over America of money. They threatened to filibuster.

Last month, with the support of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and with Mayor Williams personally visiting the Senate floor to lobby for the proposal, the Republicans had a majority to pass the D.C. appropriations with the school choice plan, but lacked the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. Although Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) pulled the bill from the floor on September 30, his spokeswoman, Amy Call vowed, “We’ll put it in an omnibus and it will become law.”

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) reiterated this vow last week, telling HUMAN EVENTS that “vouchers for D.C. will likely be part of the ‘minibus’-a smaller package than the omnibus-that Congress will have to pass if all the freestanding appropriations bills cannot be completed.”

Expressing his own confidence that the D.C. school choice proposal will become law, Mayor Williams underscored the argument for vouchers in his city. “Vouchers will accomplish three things,” he said. “First, [they will] cause change in the public schools, second, open the way toward charter schools, and third, give poor parents a choice of schools for their kids.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the District spends $12,046 per pupil per year in its public schools, which is more than any state, and about $5,000 more than the national average. Yet, on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, D.C. students score worse in math and reading than their contemporaries in any state. Noting that some states account for their education spending differently than D.C. does, Williams nonetheless concluded, “We’re definitely spending a lot of money-in fact, $200 million more on public education since I first became mayor [in 1998]. And one thing we have learned is that more money doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes.”

Williams has come under intense fire from several fellow Democrats because of his stand in favor of school choice. Recently, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting representative in the House, harshly denounced the mayor for “selling out” by working closely with the Bush Administration and congressional Republicans to secure the voucher plan. “No question about it-I’ve taken a lot of abuse,” says Williams, although he pointedly refused to otherwise comment on the attacks against him or reply to his attackers.

Williams rejected the criticism of vouchers made by some voucher opponents-notably former Republican Gov. John Engler of Michigan, who succeeded in defeating a voucher initiative in his state three years ago-that there are no solid statistics showing vouchers have improved education. “I visited Milwaukee and Cleveland, where they both have voucher programs,” said Williams, “and found that in the areas vouchers are supposed to address-reducing truancy, improving order in the schools, creating a better environment in which to learn, and helping more kids to graduate-things are definitely better and having the voucher program has clearly helped the public school system.

“To the extent that we haven’t seen a solid study on vouchers, that’s an argument for trying vouchers here in the District,” he said. “We’ll have our study and we’ll know for the first time if [vouchers] will work.”

The Catholic schools offered “a structure that helped me,” said Williams, who spent 12 years in parochial schools. “When I got into trouble or was not performing, the nuns were there to see I worked things out.”

The mayor praised President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige for what he called “a monumental effort” to move Senate Republicans toward the voucher pilot program. “We’ve got too many people [in Congress] who are wed to institutions, such as public schools,” said Williams, “and what we’re talking about now is, what is more important: Children or institutions and using the status quo? Clearly, using the status quo is not acceptable.”