President Bill Clinton recently vetoed S. 1502, the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1998 passed by Congress on April 30, 1998. This $7 million plan would have offered 2,000 District of Columbia students vouchers worth up to $3,200 to help them attend a public, private, or religious school of choice.
Critics claimed that parents in the District did not support these scholarships. For example, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) asserted that "D.C. parents and ministers and local leaders have made it clear that they do not want vouchers."2 Senator Thomas Daschle (D-SD) observed that "All parents want their children to be able to go to the best schools possible. But . . . District voters rejected vouchers by an 8-to-1 margin in 1981."3 And Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) stated, "I think I can say with confidence that the people I represent would deeply resent the imposition of vouchers."4
This rhetoric, however, ignores the reality of growing bipartisan and grassroots support for vouchers. Three days after the President's veto, for example, The Washington Post released the results of a May 11-17, 1998, poll of District residents on this issue. Contrary to the claims of critics, the poll showed that 65 percent of African-Americans who reside in the District and have incomes under $50,000 favor using federal dollars to send children to private or religious schools. Furthermore, 56 percent of D.C. residents overall support school choice.5 Contrary to what critics have said, school choice is popular.
Congress should consider adopting choice to help District of Columbia students, whether this involves overriding the President's veto of the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act or working through some other legislative vehicle. Residents of the District, particularly low-income parents who would be eligible for such scholarships, are solidly behind vouchers, and they deserve an opportunity to send their children to schools that are most likely to help them succeed.
School choice and vouchers have attracted strong support among legislators and members of the President's own party, as well as among independent journalists, as the following quotes clearly demonstrate.
I have come to the belief that the constitutional issues involved [with school choice] are not as clear cut as opponents have argued. While lower courts have ruled that vouchers used in private religious schools violate the first amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion, the Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on the question. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that State tuition tax credits for private religious school tuition are perfectly constitutional, and the Supreme Court has ruled that Pell grants--vouchers for college students--can be used in private religious colleges without violating the Constitution. . . . Even some liberal constitutional scholars have noted that vouchers to parents and children may be constitutional.
When you have an area of the country--and most often here we are talking about inner cities--where the public schools are abysmal or dysfunctional or not working and where most of the children have no way out, it is legitimate to ask what would happen to the public schools with increased competition from private schools and what would happen to the quality of education for the children who live there.6
For [Senator John] Kerry [D-MA], the debate over schools has become mindless Kabuki ritual: while liberals want more money for public education and conservatives demand private-school vouchers, kids fall farther behind. . . . This spring, Kerry plans to commit the supreme Democratic heresy. He's considering, NEWSWEEK has learned, embracing school vouchers if conservatives do their part and back vastly increased resources for public education.7
This is not a question for me about Democrats or Republicans. It is really a question about whether or not we are going to continue to let every child die, arguing that, if we begin to do vouchers, if we do charter schools, what we in fact are doing is taking away from the public system. We say, let them all stay there. Let them all die. It is like saying there has been a plane crash. But because we cannot save every child, we are not going to save any of our children; we let them all die.8
"If I were running a public school system, I'd sign a contract with the parochial schools--as Mayor Guiliani wanted to do in New York--and have them educate some of the poorest kids," [Senator Kerrey] told New Yorker magazine. "I don't see the First Amendment as so rigid that it prevents us from contracting with people who are getting the job done right."9
The District of Columbia public school system allocates $10,180 per student, the highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet, according to the Annie Casey Foundation, 80% of fourth-graders in the Washington public schools score below their grade on basic math skills. The National Assessment of Education Progress reports that 72% of Washington's fourth-graders test below "basic proficiency" . . . [an] appalling failure. . . .
Washington's families and teachers favor a right to choose the paths of education for their families. . . . The issue is not what families choose, but rather, that they be allowed and empowered to do so.
U.S. citizenship guarantees all parents an education for their children. This is a true civil right. Yet some children receive a better education than others due to their parents' abilities to pay for benefits that are often missing in public schools. This inequity is a violation of the civil rights of the parents and children who are so afflicted by lack of income and by the mismanagement endemic to so many of the country's public school systems.10
The true choice here is between preserving the status quo at all costs, which is slamming a door in the face of the parents and children who want to do better, and doing what is necessary to put those children first. In other words, asking whether the status quo of the public education orthodoxy, which is letting down so many children, is so important that we are willing to sacrifice the hopes and aspirations of thousands of children for the sake of a process, not for the sake of the children.11
I am going to . . . plead with my colleagues on the Democratic side, where the opposition to the bill lies, to set aside the suspect political motivation behind [the Student Opportunity Scholarship Act] and to put aside all that kind of lofty ideological rhetoric that partisanship can inspire. . . . Because all it is is an additional $7 million that can only go to poor families, only poor families. . . . Why should we condemn all of these children to continue to suffer such inequity because we want to uphold our lofty principles and our traditional politics? Of course we believe in public schools. But we also believe in the intrinsic worth of every one of those children born in the District of Columbia. They have the same right as everyone else has.12
Look at it from the viewpoint of those parents who grab so avidly for the chance to get their children into better schools: Should they be required to keep their children in dreadful schools in order to keep those schools from growing even worse? Should they be made to wait until we get around to improving all the public schools? . . . Surely voucher opponents cannot believe the logic of their counterargument: that if you can't save everybody--whether from a burning apartment house, a sinking ship or a dreadful school system--it's better not to save anybody at all.13
I've always found it a little odd that liberals hand the voucher idea to Republicans like [Representatives Charles H.] Taylor and [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich, rather than grabbing if for themselves. . . . For poor children, trapped in execrable schools, the case [for vouchers] is moral rather than merely educational. These kids attend schools which cannot protect their physical safety, much less teach them. To require poor people to go to dangerous, dysfunctional schools that better-off people fled years ago, and that better-off people would never tolerate for their own children--all the while intoning pieties about "saving" public education--is worse than unsound public policy. It is repugnant public policy.
Why should the poor be denied more control over their most important means of social advancement, when soccer moms and latte-drinkers take for granted that they can buy their way out of a school (or a school district) that abuses or annoys them?
By embracing school choice--if not everywhere, then at least somewhere--liberals could at one stroke emancipate the District's schoolchildren while also emancipating liberalism from that basest sort of corruption.14
These [school choice] efforts should be expanded into a national demonstration program involving poor children in no fewer than 10 hard-pressed urban school districts for a period of no less than five years, with carefully designed monitoring and evaluation plans. We cannot afford to write off another generation of urban schoolchildren. . . . It is time to set ideology and politics aside and put our children first.15
Democrats who had made careers as champions of the poor opposed the [school choice] plan, arguing that a solution that did not save every child was unacceptable. The Democrats got the worst of the exchange. They seemed more interested in preserving the public school monopoly than in saving at least some children's lives [through vouchers].16
I am a lifelong Democrat, and I am not sure when the Democrats decided that siding with the poor and the needy is no longer part of their platform. School choice empowers parents, and I don't care who is behind it, Democrats or Republicans.17
A modest voucher experiment might help energize the public schools. . . . And such a program, we believe, will not do harm to the system or by implication suggest that it is a permanent loser. . . . The point--the hope--would be that such an experiment could be one small part of the effort being undertaken with vigor and optimism by the new school team to bring the District system to a higher, more even standard of achievement, one that reflects the quality of our best schools, which are the models.18
Nina H. Shokraii is a former Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.