Give vouchers a chance
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
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
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
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