- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

This week, the vast majority of House Democrats will likely vote to maintain funding for a private school voucher program for District of Columbia students. The program, moreover, has the support of the Clinton administration, Mayor Anthony Williams and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Has the Democratic Party establishment finally abandoned its steadfast opposition to school choice? No, the world has not turned upside down. The program, you see, is only for college students.

Last year, President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders came together to enact a program to expand the range of educational opportunities available to D.C. high school graduates. Beginning this fall, the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program will allow District students to pay in-state rates at any public college or university in the country with the federal government making up the difference. The program will also provide grants of $2,500 a year for D.C. students attending private schools in the metropolitan area.

Not surprisingly, the program has proven to be popular with District residents; more than 2,400 students have already signed up. While many low-income D.C. students could previously afford to attend only the University of the District of Columbia, the new tuition assistance program has opened up a broad range of heretofore-unavailable public and private educational options.

Given the popularity of this choice program, perhaps many Democrats will re-evaluate their opposition to school choice at the K-12 level. In 1998, Congress passed similar legislation that would have provided scholarships of $3,200 for low-income students in the District to attend a K-12 public, private, or religious school anywhere in the metropolitan area. The bill, however, was opposed by most Democrats and was subsequently vetoed by Bill Clinton.

But if choice is good at the college level, then why is it not also beneficial for K-12 students? It cannot be seriously disputed that District students are in dire need of better K-12 educational options. The latest test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, show that only 7 percent of District fourth-graders are proficient in reading and only 5 percent are proficient in math. Were the District of Columbia a state, it would easily rank 51st, or dead last, in student performance.

While the current effort to provide District residents with better access to high-quality colleges and universities is admirable, most students will not be able to take advantage of these opportunities unless they first receive an adequate K-12 education. And in far too many instances, the District's public schools are not providing students with the educational foundation they need to succeed in college.

Those in Congress and the Clinton administration opposed to K-12 scholarships raise a number of objections to school choice. But it is difficult to reconcile these criticisms with their support of the District's new tuition assistance program. Consider just two examples.

First, many of these opponents object to giving parents the option of using publicly funded scholarships at religious schools, arguing that such a program would violate the First Amendment's establishment clause. But if this is the case, then why do they support a program that allows students to use federal government grants to attend D.C.'s Catholic University?

And second, many choice opponents complain that money spent on scholarships could be better used to improve the D.C. public schools. But why is this not equally true for D.C.'s tuition assistance program? According to the reasoning of choice opponents, shouldn't the $17 million spent on college scholarships instead be used to improve the University of the District of Columbia?

It is to be hoped that many in Congress will begin to realize the inconsistency of their positions on school choice. As Mrs. Norton and others speak out this week on the House floor against an attempt by some Republicans to reduce funding for D.C.'s tuition assistance program, perhaps some of the program's supporters will come to realize that their arguments also make the case for K-12 scholarships. And if that happens, the debate could be a productive one not only for District college students but also for their younger brothers and sisters as well.

Matthew Berry is a lawyer with the Institute for Justice.

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