- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Students at poor-performing D.C. schools could have a chance to attend private or religious schools with federal help for four years under a pilot program that Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, is expected to introduce today.
"We need to demonstrate that through a successful voucher program in the District of Columbia, we can implement a successful voucher program nationwide," Mr. McCain said. "The time has come for us to see the effects of school choice to determine the benefits of providing educational choices to all students, not just those who are fortunate enough to be born into a wealthy family."
The proposal is being introduced through an amendment called "Educational Choices for Disadvantaged Children" and directs $25 million in federal funds for fiscal years 2002 through 2006 to pay for eligible children to attend private, parochial or public school.
If the amendment is approved by Congress, the Districts Board of Education would choose schools with the poorest academic performance, establishing a lottery for eligible children. Children in families that earn no more than 200 percent of the poverty line could receive $2,000 annually for four years to attend the school of their choice. The subsidy could be used to pay for tuition at public, private or parochial schools, transportation costs to the school of choice, or supplementary educational assistance such as tutoring.
The legislation also calls for a review of the program after three years by the comptroller general.
Voucher programs are much less prolific than other school-choice initiatives such as charter schools. Milwaukee and school districts in Florida and Maine allow students to use tax dollars to attend private schools. Clevelands 4-year-old program was halted last year after a judge ruled it unconstitutional. The ruling is being appealed.
Although the District has embraced charter schools, vouchers have been more controversial. Supporters say vouchers give poor students an enhanced educational opportunity and stimulate competition, encouraging public schools to improve. Opponents say they drain money from ailing school systems and skim off the top students.
City and school officials oppose the initiative, saying $2,000 will not go far in helping poor residents pay tuition costs that average $10,000 annually. They add that aggressively reforming the public system is the priority.
"This would be bad public policy for the nation and for the District," said Ward 7 D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, a Democrat and the chairman of the councils education committee.
School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz called the proposal "tacky" but applauded its "loopholes," which she says will allow the District to fund transportation for students who want to attend special programs at public high schools across the city, summer school and tutors.
"That is the greatest gift," she said. "This will allow us to do what we have wanted to do all along. We are going to use those loopholes to benefit children. In them, I find brilliance."
Ms. Cafritz and others noted that more than a third of current scholarships to send eligible children to private schools are not used because there are no openings in those schools.
Others were offended at the lack of dialogue between the former presidential candidate and local officials and called the initiative "heavyhanded."
"It is bizarre that Congress decides to use the District as their personal laboratory," said District 3 board member Tommy Wells. "Sen. McCain is trying to do here what he cant institute in his home state. We are the guinea pigs for a national political agenda."
But voucher proponents say school choice is crucial for improving education, both public and private.
"The more choice the better," said Frank Riggs, policy chairman for the nonprofit Children First America, an umbrella organization for private scholarship programs. "We need the competition and choice to promote systemic school reform."


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