Researcher Donavan Wilson, a colleague of mine at the Heritage Foundation, has an interesting theory about why so many people here in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, remain so implacably opposed to school vouchers.
Here in Washington, where Congress has offered to put up $13 million to enable 2,000 children in the District's worst schools to move to private schools, some politicians in the city – especially Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., – frame opposition to the proposal as a local-control issue. Rep. Norton resorted to that claim once Congress took away her other grounds for opposition and agreed to pony up equal bonus dollars for its failing public schools.
Wilson says Norton's message resonates best with older African-Americans in the city – those who remember not being allowed into some school, as well as stores, churches, restaurants, etc. because of the color of their skin. To them, agreeing to a voucher program means letting outsiders dictate to them on a key local issue. More importantly, he says, they think it means admitting the District has given up on building a first-class school system. This, Wilson concludes, explains why polls show older Washingtonians oppose the move, but younger adults – particularly those in the child-rearing years – strongly support it.
Norton won't be swayed. She is beholden to the teachers' unions and must do their bidding. Neither will Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who blocked a vote on the D.C. budget over vouchers last week. She remains furious at President Bush for appearing in the state on behalf of her opponent before last-year's election and relishes the chance to embarrass him. But there is some use in talking to the older folks. Because, as Richard Pryor used to say, "You don't get to be old being no fool."
And to those older folks, I respectfully say this: You pushed to get into those white schools 50 years ago because you wanted a better education for yourselves and your children, right? You knew separate was not equal, and that "white schools" had better facilities and resources. And you knew education – more than anything else – was and is the passport out of poverty.
Well, the question is before you again. How do we get your children and, now, grandchildren the education they deserve?
A few things have changed. The population of Washington is now 65 percent or so African-American, and the school system is 90 percent black. Instead of going to the next (white) neighborhood for a good school, you now must look across the river into Virginia and across the border into Maryland. You can't rezone any longer. Virginia and Maryland are different jurisdictions.