Leave no district child behind

Posted: Sep 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Just as the Democratic Party miscalculated the issue of homeland security during the last election cycle due to labor-union pandering, Senate Democrats are in danger of making a similar miscalculation on education policy due to its special-interest pandering to the teachers' union at the expense of Washington, D.C.'s, poorest children, particularly African-American and other minority children trapped in failing schools. Senate Democrats are threatening to obstruct a bill that the House of Representatives approved by a one-vote margin, 209-208, to bring greater opportunity to children of the District of Columbia. It's the legislation to enact Mayor Anthony Williams' plan for school vouchers - in reality they are scholarships - in the district.

Democratic Councilman Kevin Chavous recently wrote President Bush supporting federally funded local scholarship programs, and I hope senators take their lead from him and support the school-voucher amendment to the D.C. Appropriations Bill. It looks like it's going to be a close vote - if it even gets that far since Senate Democrats are threatening to filibuster the proposal out of fear of being on the record voting against the children of D.C. Each senator supporting a filibuster and in effect voting against this bill should be compelled to come before the families affected and explain why they will not allow the district's poorest children to be educated in a better school, why it is right to coerce these children into failing schools and why a handful of Democratic senators is better suited to determine the needs of these children than are their parents.

The House version would provide $10 million available to fund scholarships of up to $7,500 each for about 2,000 of the neediest students in the district, with priority given to those in underperforming schools. This is a solution for the district's unique challenges, and the vote will be an important show of support for district leaders as they seek to improve education in the city, including public, charter and private schools. Williams, Chavous, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and leading members of the business community have asked for this voucher plan as a part of their strategy. The only outstanding detail is congressional approval of their local plan.

As economist Alan Reynolds pointed out in a recent column, even this tightly rationed version of school choice frightens the bureaucratic gatekeepers who insist on compelling all low-income children to remain locked in failing or poorly performing public schools.

With Senate Democrats threatening to filibuster the legislation, it is important for supporters of choice and local control to knock down the false claims that will surely come from school choice opponents. In the past, voucher opponents have often hidden behind the Constitution, but in the wake of the 2002 Cleveland vouchers court case that argument is dead on arrival.

Another perennial favorite among opponents is that scholarships will "take money away from the schools." Even accepting that claim arguendo, it simply does not fly here.

The vouchers would be funded with federal money, leaving local funds untouched.

However, if the money for this or any other voucher program did not come from additional funding, in order to reach the conclusion that vouchers would take money away from public schools based on competition presupposes that public schools can't compete - not exactly a compelling argument for keeping the status quo.

It is appalling that the political party that claims to be for the "little guy," the party that thinks it owns the issue of education and the party that takes for granted its support from African-Americans - the Democratic Party - would oppose this legislation. Is there any group more worthy of our compassion and dependent on our judgment than our children? Is there any issue more important to their future than education? And, is there any group suffering more than the African-American children trapped in failing public schools?

Congress has a special responsibility when it comes to district schools, and more should be done to live up to that responsibility. Empowering families in our nation's capital with educational choice should be at the top of the list. The mayor has the support of the president, district leadership and district families. The House of Representatives is on his side and the Senate should be, as well. Senators have a duty to vote in the best interest of the district's children, not of the National Education Association.