- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

The mayor sponsored a public hearing Feb. 13 on education, so he could get public opinion before he finalizes his school budget. Or so the mayor said. The hearing was a ruse, designed to allow lobbyists and other standard-bearers of the status quo including unions, Parents United, the PTA and, yes, the D.C. Board of Education to air their anti-voucher rhetoric. In fact, the majority of speakers tried to make a case for more money for the troubled school system. That was no surprise, since the mayor already had made up his mind about education before the hearing, as have D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous and the school board. So, don't expect anything in the way of reform from City Hall for next school year's budget. The mayor and council will do as they always do: tell you that it's the largest school-budget proposal in D.C. history; tinker around the edges of the $1 billion 2004 budget; then sign off. Liberal politics prohibit them from crafting substantive school-reform policies. But all is not hopeless.
Congress is considering legislation that would provide scholarships to deserving youngsters trapped in the District's one-size-fits-all school system. The scholarships are necessary for several reasons. The District has the third-highest per-pupil expenditures in the region, yet its students stand on the lower rungs on standardized test results. For example, per-pupil spending in the District is $10,031, while neighboring Montgomery and Fairfax counties are only spending $9,741 and $9,388, respectively. Meanwhile, Montgomery and Fairfax students academically outpace D.C. students. Another reason why D.C. parents need vouchers for their children is the District's troubled special education program. Parents in the city can essentially send their children to any school system of their choosing because of the city's poor track record of assessing children with special needs and of not providing sufficient programs for them. In fact, suing the school system has become a cottage industry, with far too much money going to trial lawyers dollars that should be spent in classrooms.
Indeed, the powers-that-be in City Hall are not going to change their hearts or their minds. The city's elected officials are too dependent on the union lobby and most of them either don't have children in D.C. public schools or send theirs to private schools. So, unlike the vast majority of parents whose children are stuck in poor-performing schools, they have no vested interest in vouchers or broader academic opportunities for D.C. youth.
That essentially is what the mayor and Mr. Chavous told Education Secretary Rod Paige on Feb. 6, when they sat down to discuss school-choice options. Like most Democrats, Mayor Williams and Mr. Chavous took cover behind charter schools, since those schools already have the blessings of the unions and the PTA. Government-funded vouchers are a "nonstarter," Mayor Williams said. Mr. Chavous drew from his father-knows-best speech, and rejected the offer out of hand not surprising, since he can afford to send his sons to private school.
Fortunately for the tens of thousands of children whose parents also know and want what's best, Congress is considering legislation that would appropriate $75 million to be used as scholarships for low-income children. Under legislation proposed by Rep. Jeff Flake, a newly created D.C. Scholarship Corp. would receive $7 million next fiscal year, $8 million in 2005 and $10 million through 2007. The money would allow poor parents to receive scholarships ranging from $3,750 to $5,000. They could then use the money to send their child to a private. Critics, even those in the media, mistakenly argue that that money is insufficient to cover the costs of tuition. To the contrary, it could be more than enough in many cases, and in some where the vouchers fell short, private schools do, indeed, often offer scholarships themselves. Besides, Congress can increase that level to $7,500 if it so chooses.
Mr. Chavous and others have said that forcing vouchers on the District would be an assault on self-governance. That simply is not true. Besides, we haven't heard any wails out of City Hall about how injurious failing public schools have been to what? a second generation of D.C. youth.
Since the mayor and the council have chosen not to take lead on this important education initiative, they have left the Bush administration and Congress little choice but to move forward with all deliberate speed.

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