Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democratic delegate for the District of Columbia, went to the floor of the House last week, huffing and puffing that if Congress allows school choice in the nation's capital it will blow the doors off public schools nationwide.
"If Members vote for vouchers," she said, "they will send a signal to every private school, every organization of private schools, to every organization of religious schools, that this is the time to bring pressure to get the same kind of private school deal that the District of Columbia got."
May Norton's nightmare come true. Public schools need competition, and the District of Columbia is the perfect place to start.
The public schools in the nation's capital are the nation's worst. They excel at failure: No state can match them in overcharging taxpayers or under-serving students.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the District spends more money per pupil in its public schools than any state. Yet, in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading tests, District public school students score worse than students in any state.
In 2000-01 (the latest school year available), says NCES, the District spent $12,046 per pupil on its elementary and secondary schools. But, in the latest NAEP tests, 94 percent of the District's fourth- and eighth-graders scored below proficiency in math and 90 percent scored below proficiency in reading.
These schools are not teaching students the basic skills needed to succeed in any society, let alone in America's advanced economy.
On the House floor, Delegate Norton said the problem is a lack of money. "Schools," she said, "are in the worst crisis that they have been in our country since World War II, the worst funding crisis, according to all the data coming forward."
Maybe she should take a math test herself.
According to NCES, American elementary and secondary schools spent $1,214 per pupil (in 2001-02 dollars) in the 1945-46 school year. In 2001-02, they spent $8,745. That's a seven-fold increase.
The amount of spending is not a problem. The direction of it is.