- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

When Congress passed a school-voucher bill in 1997, President Clinton vetoed it. President Bush included a voucher provision last year in his education initiative, Leave No Child Behind, but the House rejected it 273-155. On Monday, debate began anew on the floor of the House, where D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton again added her name to the list of lawmakers, especially Democrats, who prefer to hold on to the status quo rather than grant educational choice to underprivileged children stuck in poorly performing schools. In a speech last week that pretty much hits up every argument opponents of choice have ever made, the District's lone elected-voice on Capitol Hill claimed she supports choice and alternatives. Be clear, however: Mrs. Norton does not support choice.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey introduced the D.C. voucher legislation on June 27, the same day the Supreme Court ruled that a needs-based voucher program in Ohio is not unconstitutional. If passed by Congress and signed into law by Mr. Bush, vouchers worth up to $5,000 would aid thousands of needy D.C. students, whose parents could then enroll them in the private or parochial school of their choice. At least 8,300 scholarships will be available over five years. Families with incomes below the poverty level would receive up $5,000, and families with incomes up to 185 percent of the poverty level, or $33,226, would receive tuition assistance up to $3,750. "The Supreme Court has spoken on education choice," Mr. Armey said in announcing his bill. "Now it's time for Congress to do its part on behalf of low-income parents that simply want a better education for their children. Needy children in the District and across the country have waited long enough."
If Mrs. Norton and the others have their way, needy youngsters will still have to wait. Mrs. Norton, who was born and reared in the nation's capital, knows better than any other federal lawmaker that the poorest students in the District are stuck in poor-performing and segregated public schools. She knows the test scores and the statistics from the justice system and entitlement programs state as much year end in and year out, and she knows that the D.C. system is struggling with itself to improve schools. Mrs. Norton also knows that a study commissioned in 1996 undeniably stated that the longer any child stays in D.C. Public Schools the worse off that child is academically. Yet, Mrs. Norton insists on denying publicly funded vouchers for these unfortunate children.
"I strongly believe in choices and alternatives to public schools," Mrs. Norton said, adding that the city "deserves applause … not punishment for the choices we have made." But applause for what? Charter schools, which Congress had to practically force on the city before local legislation was passed? A rise in standardized test scores, which are indeed good news but hardly front-page material? The fact that D.C. children aren't forced to attend schools in their own neighborhood? That argument doesn't wash either because there are lousy neighborhood schools in each quadrant of the city, so a child who lives in Southeast goes to a lousy school in Northwest means that school is lousy nonetheless.
Interestingly, Mrs. Norton thought it "ironic" that the voucher legislation would come up Monday, the same day this newspaper ran an editorial that said "D.C. schools make headway," in recognition of the rise in test scores. We thank her for the recognition. But what Mrs. Norton didn't mention was the bad news about D.C. public high schools, schools whose performance has been lagging for so long that the superintendent commissioned a task force to begin turning them around.
The editorial said in part: "Estimated graduation rates for ninth-grade students who should finish in four years are alarmingas low as 50 percent. Average SAT scores are only 822, compared with a national average of 1020. Social promotions are problems as well. For example, Spingarn High in Northeast has reportedly allowed 43 seniors to graduate after re-adjusting their grades to include extra-credit assignments and other 'last-minute' shuffles, including retesting."
Must that news be plastered on banner, front-page headlines every day of the week before Mrs. Norton and other opponents of vouchers and school choice understand that every D.C. child no matter race, creed, color or income deserves a better education than the one that most of them are now receiving in D.C. Public Schools?
Mrs. Norton should be shouting, "Vouchers, yes, and vouchers now." D.C. children deserve no less.


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