- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003

As early as this week, both the House and the Senate could be considering landmark school-voucher bills that would offer thousands of children currently confined to the atrocious D.C. public schools an opportunity to escape the failure-plagued system. Equally important, according to recent research examining the impact of private-school vouchers on Florida’s poorly performing public schools, the same bills Congress will soon be considering would also provide strong incentives for the District’s abysmal public schools to improve. It is a classic — and extremely rare — win-win opportunity for all of D.C.’s public-school children.

In the Senate, the question is whether liberal senators like Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (home of the wretched Philadelphia public schools) and Democrats Ted Kennedy (self-styled civil-rights champion) and Mary Landrieu (whose own children attend Georgetown Day, where average annual tuition exceeds $21,000) will emulate the Southern segregationists of the past by standing athwart the schoolhouse door blocking opportunities for poor black children. In the House, it would be quite helpful if Republican members Todd Platts of Pennsylvania and John McHugh of New York came to their senses. Both opposed the voucher bill that narrowly passed the Government Reform Committee by a 22-21 vote last month.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, would authorize $15 million in new funding for fiscal 2004 (which begins Oct. 1) to provide 2,000 District students a maximum of $7,500 each for tuition, fees and transportation costs to attend private or parochial schools. Low-income students from poorly performing schools would receive priority. Mr. Davis emphasized that “no public, private or charter school will be drained of any funds.” The Senate is considering separate legislation that would divide $40 million among low-income opportunity scholarships and new grants to regular District public schools and public charter schools.

Those even remotely familiar with the deplorable performance of D.C. public schools hardly need any additional information about the utter failure of the system, in which per-pupil expenditures, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, exceed the national average by nearly 50 percent. Nevertheless, it is worth noting how much the just-released 2003 SAT scores of college-bound District students confirmed just how wretched city public schools truly are. Compared to the national combined (math and verbal) SAT score of 1026, D.C. public-school students scored a dismal 799. D.C. students attending religious schools achieved a combined score of 1190; those attending independent schools in the District scored 1218.

While the lousy SAT scores were recorded by “college-bound” high school seniors, a Manhattan Institute study last year found that as many as two out of five District public-school students fail to graduate from high school. That’s not surprising, considering how few District students possess proficient reading and math skills at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Indeed, the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test revealed that 91 percent of D.C. public-school fourth-graders and 90 percent of eighth-graders read below the proficient level. On the 2000 NAEP math test, 95 percent of District fourth-graders and 94 percent of eighth-graders failed to perform proficiently.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A recent Manhattan Institute study concluded that the poorly performing Florida public schools that registered the most improvement on Florida’s statewide exam were those that were either forced to compete directly with vouchers or threatened with that prospect. That makes the D.C. voucher experiment before Congress a win-win proposition. Only somebody with an ulterior motive (union pressure?) could vote against these bills — and against the students whose academic opportunities D.C. vouchers would enhance.

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