- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

If U.S. House and Senate conferees need to be reminded of the importance of school choice as they debate various education-related issues this week, they need only step away from Capitol Hill to see the evidence firsthand. Like millions of other American children, D.C. students trapped in failing schools are destined for academic failure.
"The longer a child stays in the D.C. public school system, the greater is the decline in scholastic achievement." That was one conclusion drawn in the 1996 control board study, "Children in Crisis: A Report on the Failure of the D.C. Public Schools." Another study, this one conducted in 1999 by the Heritage Foundation, found the reverse to be true of black students in D.C. Roman Catholic schools. The study noted that, on average, black eighth-graders in a D.C. Catholic school perform better in mathematics than 72 percent of their public school peers. Moreover, the Catholic school students in fourth grade scored 6.5 percent higher than their public school counterparts. In eighth grade, they scored 8.2 percent higher than those in public schools.
Meanwhile, after four years of "reform" in the District, the public school system remains in serious trouble. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who is operating in an impossible political climate, may not be around next school year. If that happens, and parents are hoping it does not, the city will have its fourth superintendent in 10 years. The elected school board, which was stripped of any real power in 1996, is set to regain its full authority despite accusations that it is guilty of micromanagement and incompetence. The temporary school board, which had operated in its stead since 1996, is no more. The congressionally created control board, which was charged with but has failed to usher in genuine educational reform, will probably be dismantled in 2001. Meanwhile, the mayor and the D.C. Council are battling over control of the school system. Charter schools are a popular but very limited alternative to the existing system.
Parents who send their children to private and parochial schools and parents who cannot afford to do so have essentially thrown their hands up in despair. The D.C. school system has become a school system for the have-nots where, although standardized test scores are creeping upward despite measurable odds, the overwhelming majority of D.C. school children still lag behind their regional and national peers. Mrs. Ackerman wants to offer summer classes for practically every student interested, but council member Kathy Patterson and others think only certain children should attend summer school. In other words, let them get in academic trouble first, then try to turn the tide.
Again, the very sad thing, the very troubling thing is the children most hurt by the lack of choice are poor children. They have no way out because their parents have no way out. The White House and Congress, though, can change those circumstances by doing two simple things. One, cut the red tape tied to federal grant money. Funds for the likes of school-based feeding programs, special education, Head Start, bilingual education and more come with restrictions on the way recipients can spend them. States and localities need more flexibility to deal with problems they understand more clearly than federal regulators. Parents should have flexibility, too. The federal government needs to let parents, especially poor parents, send their children and their public-education dollars to the school of their choice. It really and truly is that simple.

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