It's still about a better education

Posted: Jul 23, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

But the facts remain. According to "School Choice 2003" – the Heritage Foundation's annual look at school choice in the states and a handy guide for anyone interested in choice in education – the District spent $11,009 per pupil in 2001-2002. No state matches that. It paid teachers, on average, $47,049 per year. Only two states – Rhode Island and New York, both with extremely high costs of living – match that.

And what does it get for all this money? Squat – or close to it. In math, 76 percent of fourth-graders performed at the basic or below-basic level on national tests taken in 2000, and just 3 percent performed at the "advanced" level. In science, 72 percent of fourth-graders performed at the basic or below-basic level, and just 3 percent were at the "advanced" level.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Students in District schools are not achieving. And something needs to be done – now.

This may seem like a local matter, but it's not. Similar battles, with hauntingly similar rhetoric, are fought all over the country over vouchers. Opponents say they fear a crumbling of the wall between church and state and a loss of something shared by nearly all: the public-school system.

Surprisingly, though, vouchers help the public schools around them. In Milwaukee, the only place in America with a true-blue voucher program, the competition has lifted scores in the public schools, as well as for all the city's children, according to Carolyn Hoxby, a Harvard economist who has studied the program.

It's not a matter of ideology. It's a matter of that question again: Are your children and grandchildren getting the education they not only deserve but need? The answer in the District, by any reasonable measure, is no. So do for them what you did for yourself 50 years ago: Reach out for something better. Fight until you drop for that passport out of poverty. And don't let any politician beholden to a union talk you out of it.