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May 3, 2004

Give vouchers a chance

By

There's a single father in Washington who is raising a son in the seventh grade and a daughter in the ninth.

The daughter is off to a blazing start at Eastern High School, but the son is not faring so well at Brown Junior High. So the father is applying for the new opportunity scholarships - known far and wide as vouchers - to get his kids into one of the city's private schools.

The father is "not interested in beating up the school system," said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, Inc., "He just wants to find a place that better suits his son's needs."

A D.C. mother with five kids in elementary school, though, is interested in beating up the school system. "Why am I forced to send my children to a bad school just because I'm poor?" asks the mom (who didn't want her name used in case her children aren't accepted). "That school hasn't been serving anyone for 20 years. How does it remain open?"

She, too, will take part in the signup now under way at the D.C. Convention Center.This will put her children into the lottery for scholarships of up to $7,500 per year for tuition, fees and transportation to a private school beginning this fall.

Critics say the program will only divert funds from the needy public schools. That the private schools have little or no oversight. That many parents won't even know about the opportunity before it's too late. They say the program will serve no more than 2 percent of the students who need help and claim its funding will leave the others in even worse shape.

What they must acknowledge, though, is we wouldn't be having this discussion if not for the abject failure of D.C. Public Schools. DCPS spends more than $12,046 per student yearly - more than any other jurisdiction in the nation. Yet its students' scores on nationally normed achievement tests rank at or near the bottom in almost every category.

All the usual "reforms" have been tried: Smaller classes, early intense reading instruction, more money for facilities, better teacher pay. Nothing has worked. Why not try something else?

As for oversight, if the superior quality of education and classroom discipline of private schools were not articles of faith among parents, again, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Parents know private schools are generally better than DCPS. That's why thousands sign up for these few opportunities.

The argument about funding holds even less water. Mayor Tony Williams and his partners in Congress made clear from the beginning this was not a zero-sum game - money devoted to vouchers would not come from the coffers of DCPS. And they've kept their word. The voucher program will bring in an additional $14 million for the program - $13 million of which is scholarship funds, but the school system will receive $26 million in new funds to improve educational opportunities for children who don't receive scholarships.

Critics say private schools raise civil liberties concerns. They discriminate on the basis of gender - yes, there are all-boys and all-girls schools involved, a formula increasingly finding favor with education analysts.

And they say private schools are far more willing to expel unruly students. They consider this a negative. But anyone who has seen one or two unruly students ruin the learning experience for an entire classroom probably would disagree.

This program is for parents who aren't willing to accept the DCPS status quo. It's very unlikely their children will be problem students. And heaven help the student who must go home and tell mom and dad he "blew it" and lost the scholarship.

Finally, there is the question of giving parents adequate notice. Those organizing the fund have distributed flyers to every family that requested one through the Washington Scholarship Fund, D.C. Parents for School Choice or the program directly (dcscholarship.org).

The fund has distributed flyers through grass-roots groups, placed ads in local media and partnered with a variety of other organizations, including Capital Partners for Education, Greater Washington Urban League and the Parent Group. Rest assured: Those who want to know probably know.

Allowing a few students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense will do little to lift student achievement citywide, critics say. But the places that have tried it - principally Milwaukee and Cleveland - report progress. And that's not something DCPS can claim.

Jonathan Butcher is a researcher who specializes in education issues at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Saturday's Washington Times

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