Eleanor Holmes Norton is stark raving mad. The congressional delegate from the District of Columbia accused her fellow Democrat, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, of "selling out" last week because he supports a Bush administration-backed school choice proposal that would free thousands of poor black students from rotten public schools.
The D.C. School Choice Act, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., would provide $45 million over five years for means-tested educational scholarships for up to 8,300 students in the beleaguered D.C. public school system. President Bush has earmarked a total of $75 million for similar programs across the country.
Mayor Williams, who initially opposed the plan, now believes that it's time to challenge the failed public school monopoly. "We've got a model we've been using for 140 years," he said in an article buried in last Saturday's Metro section of The Washington Post. "I think it's time to try something else."
Williams' change of heart is nothing less than historic. The black Democrat mayor of a predominantly Democrat city has bucked not only his party, but also the corrupt local teachers' union -- which endorsed him in 2002 and to which he had provided plum appointments and delivered two consecutive 18 percent teacher pay raises. (As I noted last week, the union's top leaders are mired in an embezzlement and money-laundering scandal.) The irony of Eleanor Holmes Norton -- who has long been bought and paid for by the teachers' union establishment -- calling the mayor a sellout is breathtaking.
It is Norton and her ilk who have repeatedly sold out D.C. parents and schoolchildren to defend the indefensible. The dropout rate in the D.C. public schools is 40 percent. A report released by the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute last fall showed that 36 percent of D.C. public school students scored "below basic" in mathematics on the Stanford 9 achievement test in 2001. In reading, 25 percent scored "below basic." The public school monopolists say a lack of resources is to blame. Yet, city school spending since 1998 has skyrocketed 41 percent while SAT scores remain rock-bottom. The D.C. public schools spend a whopping $13,000 per pupil (compared to a $7,500 average nationwide).
Norton has disguised her opposition to school choice behind the rhetorical cloak of "home rule." (Choosing to abort one's children is a sacred right, you see. But allowing parents to choose the best schools is a threat to democracy.) Norton complains that a completely voluntary pilot program offering educational scholarships to poor students and parents in D.C. threatens the district's right of self-governance. The liberal Washington Post dismissed such hysterics as nonsense in a recent editorial: "(A)ny suggestion that a federally funded voucher pilot program is being imposed on the District by the federal government is false. Nor is the program designed to supplant federal funding already available to D.C. public schools and public charter schools."
What Norton and the unions most fear is the right of educational self-governance by parents. More and more families are trying to escape the public school prison by any means necessary. The non-profit Washington Scholarship Fund offers private vouchers to nearly 1,200 D.C.-area students. Demand is overwhelming. Home-schooling by black parents is on the rise. Polls show that increasing numbers of black Americans, especially those younger than 35, favor school choice.
Mayor Williams, who attended Catholic schools in the district, is not alone among black Democrat politicians in supporting the pilot voucher program. D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, who represents a predominantly black ward, is also a product of Catholic schools and sends his son to a Catholic school, also backs the plan. "The really big problem with public education has been its unwillingness to look at itself and change," Chavous noted last week. "No school bureaucracy will reform itself internally. It only comes through pressure. And the most effective form of pressure is choice."
Former D.C. Council chairman Sterling Tucker agrees. "There's no question in my mind how the people feel. People want to get their children the best." Choice through vouchers is "the key that unlocks them out of the ghetto."
Twirling her nightstick and wielding brass knuckles, Eleanor Holmes Norton refuses to let her people go.