- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

D.C. officials emerging from a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige yesterday said they were committed to school choice, but there was little that federal officials could do to entice them into a school-voucher program.
"When it comes to education policy, the city should take the lead," said D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, after meeting with Mr. Paige. "We want to provide quality education to all of our children and grow school choice, but each jurisdiction much choose the most suitable method of school choice for themselves."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams also was unmoved by the offer of federal money for vouchers.
"We needed that face-to-face [meeting with Mr. Paige] to agree to disagree," the mayor's spokesman, Tony Bullock, said. "And we wanted to do so in ways that didn't prevent us from accessing funding for other school-choice programs offered. But you are not going to see our government participate in a government-sponsored voucher program. Once you have moved past that immovable position, we are really flexible about school choice and have a proven track record with it."
Mr. Paige met with Mr. Williams and Mr. Chavous to discuss increasing school choice in the District and to press for city support for a voucher program. The meeting followed the release earlier this week of President Bush's proposed fiscal 2004 budget, which contains $756 million for school-choice programs including one in the District.
Mr. Paige said he was "pleased" with the meeting, and predicted it would be the first of many.
"This was just one of what I'm sure will be many conversations about how we can work together to strengthen education in the nation's capital," he said in a written statement.
"We have many common goals and interests. Foremost is our desire to make sure our children are well-prepared with the education they'll need to achieve their dreams. We agreed that one way to achieve these goals is by providing more options to parents and families in the District of Columbia."
At issue are vouchers that would allow students to pay a portion of private- or parochial-school tuition. The president's plan did not specify the amount of the vouchers or the number of students who would receive them.
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 public school systems and skim off the top students.
In 1981, almost 90 percent of D.C. voters rejected school vouchers in the form of a tax credit.
A 2002 poll by the National School Boards Association and Zogby International found that 76 percent of D.C. residents oppose private-school vouchers.
"Vouchers drain critical dollars from neighborhood schools and divert attention from the reform effort already under way in the DCPS System," said school board members in a written statement.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat and the District's nonvoting member of Congress, implored federal officials to listen to the desires of the city's elected leaders and residents.
"The District is under great pressure to secure grant funds to shore up and expand its booming charter schools and other alternative schools," she wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to Mr. Paige.
"The exponential growth of charter schools is an indication of the success of our charter-school alternatives in meeting the needs of thousands of students, far more than could be accommodated by vouchers, and far more than could benefit from a tax credit because a credit would not benefit our low-income families," she said.
"I hope," she said, "we can avoid the bitterness of the voucher fights that were prompted by congressional attempts to force vouchers on the District in the recent past."

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