DC vouchers

Posted: Sep 12, 2003 12:00 AM

By one vote, the House of Representatives decided last week to give needy students in the District of Columbia a fighting chance at a better education. Now the Senate is up to bat.

Arrayed against the proposal is a coalition of big moneyed interests. No, not the usual suspects -- the oil, banking or insurance industries -- this time, it is the teachers unions in concert with so-called civil liberties defenders who stand in the schoolhouse door, proclaiming, "Stagnation today, stagnation tomorrow, stagnation forever."

This victory -- narrow though it was -- demonstrates that money does not always carry the day. The teachers unions, a vital constituency for Democrats, have been most generous to Democratic candidates who vote against vouchers. (All but three Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the bill.)

But there is no money on the side favoring vouchers. Certainly the parents of poor children attending weak or miserable public schools do not have the ability to contribute to political campaigns. The Republicans who voted in favor of the plan did so because they believe in it. This is not to say that all Democrats were voting cynically. But for those who truly believe vouchers are bad for poor kids, read on.

The bill would provide $7,500 in scholarships for students in families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty limit. Priority would go to those from the worst performing schools.

Opponents of vouchers claim that public schools are ailing from lack of funds. Yet the District of Columbia spends more than $11,000 per year per student, as opposed to the national average of $7,500. The District's children are among the worst in academic achievement in the United States.

Voucher opponents urge that vouchers will cream off the best or most ambitious students and leave the vast majority in even worse conditions. But the experiments in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida suggest otherwise. The existence of a voucher option can spur public schools to improve. A study by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance found that in Florida "schools receiving a failing grade from the state in 1999, and whose students have been offered tuition vouchers if they failed a second time, achieved test score gains more than twice as large as those achieved by other schools. ... Schools with failing grades that faced the prospect of vouchers exhibited especially large gains."

Another Harvard study by Paul E. Peterson found that black students in New York City who received vouchers through a privately funded program achieved test scores that were significantly higher than those who did not.

Opponents scoff that $7,500 is not sufficient to send a child to private school. Well, it may not pay for Sidwell Friends, St. Alban's or The National Cathedral School, where so many members of Congress send their own children. But $7,500 is more than enough to pay for the average private school in the Washington, D.C., area. A Cato Institute survey found that the average tuition for private elementary schools is $5,000.

While only about 10 percent of parents nationwide send their kids to private or parochial schools, among members of the House of Representatives the figure is 41 percent, and among member of the Senate it is 46 percent. If all of the members of Congress who choose private education for their own children supported vouchers for poor children, the votes would not even be close.

Though "self-proclaimed" black leaders angrily denounce vouchers, most African Americans support them. A 2002 National Opinion Research poll found that 57.4 percent of blacks support vouchers "where parents would get money from the government to send their children to the public, private or parochial school of their choice." Among Hispanics, the figure was closer to 75 percent.

Bill Clinton's secretary of education, Richard Riley, told me once that his job was "to protect the public schools." That is the way Eleanor Holmes Norton, Richard Gephardt and many another liberal see their responsibility. Who gets forgotten? The children.