The modern emancipation of D.C.

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Almost a year before freeing slaves in Confederate states with the Emancipation Proclamation on April 16, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Compensation Emancipation Act. The act freed the approximately 3,100 slaves living in the nation’s capital.

The observance of Washington’s “Emancipation Day” became an official public holiday in 2005. There are parades, performances and a day off for city workers and public school students. Last year, Mayor Adrian Fenty also led a march to Capitol Hill to lobby for D.C. statehood.

The focus was as it is usually is in D.C. on political power rather than policies to make citizens freer. Not to take away from the oppression of slavery, but Emancipation Day is more than an opportunity to celebrate the end of the oppression of slavery. It also is a good time to note that lawmakers typically look backward at liberty’s advances rather than forward to find ways citizens can enjoy more personal freedom.

It won’t be until a week after Emancipation Day that Americans will observe “Tax Freedom Day,” the date when people essentially stop working to pay off their tax obligations and begin working for themselves. According to the Tax Foundation, April 23 is the national average. D.C. residents celebrate their particular Tax Freedom Day last after all 50 states on May 3.

Mr. Fenty was praised for his “belt-tightening” when the recently-announced city budget had only a 0.7 percent increase in spending, as opposed to eight percent increases seen in recent years. Holding the line on spending for a year, while laudable, isn’t enough. District taxpayers need leadership focused on reducing the tax burden.

Wouldn’t it be a pleasant surprise today, Emancipation Day, if Mr. Fenty and the D.C. Council announced cuts in government spending or extended the occasional “tax-free” shopping periods?

Another way city leaders could expand freedom is to extend school choice, at a minimum, to every low-income student living in the District. Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute recently pointed out that when all costs are divided by the number of students, the District of Columbia is spending close to $25,000 per child. The District essentially is providing mediocre public schooling at elite private school prices.

Despite the lousy results in the public school system over several decades, District leaders fought the creation of voucher or tuition tax credit programs and the establishment of charter schools and other education choices for families.

Frederick Douglass said, “without struggle, there is no progress.” District parents are voting with their checkbooks to enroll their children in private schools and voting with their feet through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (enrollment in traditional public schools dropped to 49,422 in 2007, from a high of 149,000 in 1969).

New leadership in the District gives reason for cautious optimism. Many hope the new bums will be better than the old ones. Mr. Fenty has made some good changes, such as shutting down superfluous schools and holding himself responsible for the performance of the city’s schools. But would our advice to President Lincoln have been that slaves in the District of Columbia needed better slaveholders and overseers rather than the freedom to control their own lives? Parents today still need a menu of education options.

When D.C. leaders can”t be relied on to extend freedom, others may help. The Supreme Court may soon step in to help D.C. residents by ending the city”s ban on firearms.

Since 1976, ownership of virtually all firearms in the District has been illegal. The gun ban hasn’t curtailed gun-related crimes against D.C. residents, but it robs them of the means of self-defense. The Supreme Court is expected to rule by June on a lower court’s rejection of the ban.

A rejection of the gun ban would throw off one modern shackle, but there are many more impediments to true economic and personal freedoms in D.C. and America as a nation. This Emancipation Day, it is as important to look forward as it is to look back.

Casey Lartigue Jr. is a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 black leadership network.

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