D.C. pilot program provides hope

Posted: Sep 30, 2003 12:00 AM

By a margin of two votes, the House recently approved a private-school voucher program for Washington, D.C., parents. Under the five-year pilot program, the state would award up to $7,500 in scholarship funds to 2,000 area parents, to pay for all or part of their children's private school tuition.

The program now awaits Senate approval. Should it pass (and there are early rumors that Sen. Ted Kennedy may filibuster), school voucher programs would likely spread throughout the country. That's good news for America's poor minority parents, whose children currently are denied the opportunity for a quality education.

Manhattan Research fellow Jay Greene explained, "You can only go to the schools where you can afford to live in the neighborhood. . and the school quality is part of the expense of that house." This economic sorting has a ripple effect on the racial and economic composition of public schools. Since public school districts are determined by housing patterns, racially and economically segregated neighborhoods have produced racially and economically segregated public schools.

According to the civil rights project at Harvard University, "More than 70 percent of the nation's black students now attend predominantly minority public schools." And there exists an astonishing body of evidence that these inner-city "minority schools" are failing to properly educate. National test scores reveal large test score gaps between cities and suburbs, rich and poor, black and white. According to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, 63 percent of black, inner-city fourth-graders and 58 percent of urban Hispanic fourth-graders are unable to demonstrate a "basic" proficiency in reading.

Whereas the wealthy can always abandon failing schools - by either moving or opting for private education - the poor remain trapped in long, unending despondency.

There now exists credible evidence that school vouchers can help change that. Harvard University's Caroline Hoxby recently analyzed how public schools in Milwaukee, Michigan and Arizona responded to voucher programs. She found that the threat of competitive pressure from the voucher program prodded public schools to improve.

The New York Times offered similar analysis upon visiting two public schools affected by Florida's voucher program. The Times reported that, when faced with competition, these schools responded by "hiring more teachers, reducing class size, extending the school year . and adding afternoon tutoring."

Education writer Carol Innerst observed that the Florida voucher program "instilled in the public schools a sense of urgency and zeal for reform not seen in the past, when a school's failure was rewarded only with more money that reinforced failure."

Perhaps the definitive word was offered by a group of researchers from Harvard, The University of Wisconsin and Brookings Institution, who recently announced that the private voucher programs in Dayton, Ohio, New York and Washington, D.C., led to a 6 percent leap in the overall test scores for African-American students.

"To get a sense of the magnitude of a six-point difference in test scores," announced the evaluators, "consider the much-discussed gap in test scores of blacks and whites. If this gap could be eliminated, it has been shown that average black earnings would increase to approximately 90 percent of white earnings. For this reason, many people feel the closure of the test score gap is one of the most important civil rights objectives remaining."

None of which seems to matter to the teachers' unions, which have dug in their heels in opposition to school vouchers. At bottom, the unions know that the idea of competition can only mean giving up power. So they vigorously oppose vouchers and promise votes to like-minded Democrats.

The recent passage of Washington, D.C's pilot program presents hope for an alternative. Giving parents a choice as to where their children learn would suddenly make public education directly accountable to the consumer. Faced with the prospect of fleeing parents, schools would have to get their act together or risk losing their customer base.

If the Senate approves Washington's voucher program, the idea will soon spread, and we will no longer write off entire generations of poor students just by virtue of their geography

That is, at very least, the beginning of a more equitable society.