- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

For years, there has been more than enough evidence documenting the dysfunction that pervades D.C. Public Schools. Adding to the long trail of dismal news, the abysmal D.C. results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2002 reading exam make a solid argument for providing District children and their parents with greater school choice that would be offered by the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, the bill would provide up to $7,500 in publicly funded private-school tuition grants to D.C. families that earn up to 180 percent of the poverty level. For a family of three, that cut-off income level would be about $27,500. The $15 million program could fund scholarships for at least 2,000 students — and probably many more, given that parochial elementary schools in the District charge as little as $3,500 in annual tuition.

Scores from the 2002 NAEP reading exams, which were administered to 270,000 of the nation’s fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders, confirmed how poorly D.C. public schools are performing.

• Compared to 39 percent of the nation’s fourth-grade public school students who could not read at the basic level, an astounding 69 percent of D.C. public school fourth-graders performed at the below basic level. Reading at a below basic level means the student could not demonstrate even a “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills.”

• Fifty-two percent of District eighth-grade students were performing at the below basic level, compared to 26 percent nationally. Only 10 percent of D.C. eighth-grade students could read at the proficient level, compared to 31 percent nationally.

• The achievement gaps between white fourth-graders and their black and Hispanic counterparts were far more pronounced in the District than in any state. The average national gap in reading scale scores between white and black fourth-grade students was 29 points; in the District, the gap was 60 points. Between white and Hispanic students, the average national gap was 28 points; in the District that gap was 55 points.

• The blame for these outrages cannot be traced to funding shortages. Drawing upon data from DOE’s National Center for Education Statistics, the NAEP reading report revealed that D.C. public schools spent nearly 50 percent more per pupil than the national average. At $48,651, the District’s average teacher salary was 13 percent above the national average.

School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said it was “absolutely inexcusable” that D.C. children had such a high illiteracy rate. “We have spent millions,” Mrs. Cafritz candidly admitted, “but it hasn’t changed in years.” Mayor Anthony Williams, who, like Mrs. Cafritz, has recently expressed support for vouchers, acknowledges that too many District children are “trapped in bad schools.” The District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has accused the mayor of “selling out” over vouchers. In fact, however, it is the dysfunctional public school system that has been “selling out” its students for years. The need for a competition-promoting, reform-inducing voucher program for the District’s long-suffering families is long overdue.

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