- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Heather Prigg of the District used to tell her mom, Joanne, that her schoolwork was like baby work.” She was bored, she would say. Frustrated, too, because students didn’t respect the teachers, and teachers didn’t respect the students.

But thanks to help from the Washington Scholarship Fund, Heather Prigg, a bright student who was struggling in her D.C. public school, has moved on to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a Catholic school in the District. The fund provides partial-tuition scholarships to students selected by lottery.

When her mother looks at the progress she has made, she can’t understand why political leaders in the District oppose a program that would make such opportunities available to far more children. She applauds Mayor Tony Williams and school board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz for throwing their support behind a proposal from Rep. Thomas M. Davis, Virginia Republican, to bring a voucher program to Washington.

Davis’ proposal, backed by President Bush, calls for spending $15 million to give taxpayer-funded tuition grants to up to 2,000 students per year in troubled schools whose families earn up to 180 percent of the poverty level. The maximum $7,500 grant wouldn’t cover the full cost of tuition and transportation for all students-Catholic secondary schools charge, on average, $9,610 per student per year. But supporters expect the Washington Scholarship Fund, similar funds for Hispanic and African-American students, and the Archdiocese of Washington, which provided $1.5 million in tuition aid last year, to help bridge the gap.

Voucher proposals have struggled to gain support nationwide, but opposition in the city has been particularly fierce. The City Council has told Mrs. Cafritz basically to mind her own business — defined, of course, as the public school system, not the quality of education its students receive. Mayor Williams, who said he came to support vouchers when he “got up one morning and decided there are a lot of kids getting a crappy education, and we could do better,” also has been taken to the woodshed by citizens, D.C. Council members and even the school system itself.

But he says he has the responsibility to change things if the city’s children aren’t being educated, and clearly, they are not.

It’s not a question of money. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, D.C. spends $12,046 per student — one of the highest per pupil expenditures in the country. Yet, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress:

• Only 6 percent of D.C.’s fourth- and eighth-graders were proficient on the 2000 mathematics assessment.

• Seventy-five percent of fourth- and eighth-graders lacked basic mastery of mathematics.

• Sixty-nine percent of D.C. public school fourth-graders performed at or below basic level on the 2002 NAEP reading assessment.

• Fifty-two percent of D.C. eighth-graders performed below basic level on the 2002 reading assessment.

Conversely, students who enrolled in private schools through the Washington Scholarship Fund program improved by 9 percentile points in one year in reading and math, according to recent research.

Given that D.C. schools waste a lot of money, students underperform and moving them to private schools seems to help significantly, the level of opposition seems puzzling. As an African-American man who works here, I would like to offer a theory.

Perhaps Mrs. Norton and others see this as giving up on a long, hard-fought battle. African-Americans make up 84 percent of the students in D.C. public schools. Many of their parents and grandparents remember when they weren’t welcome in those schools, when segregation relegated African-American students to substandard facilities with substandard books and equipment.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision brought the promise that every student would be provided the best educational opportunities available — in their public schools. To older African-Americans, this means bringing the city’s schools up to the level of their suburban counterparts. In their view, vouchers mean capitulation. They amount to admitting the District can’t — and never will — build a first-class school system.

Conversely, those in the child-rearing years see a system in failure, and they want something better for their kids — today. It’s like Joanne Prigg says: “It’s about a better education now, not five years from now.”

Poll results reflect these attitudes. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reports that 56.5 percent of African-Americans ages 51-64 oppose voucher programs, but 2 in 3 African-Americans under age 35 and nearly 60 percent of those in the 35-50 age group support vouchers.

With all due respect for the older folks, it is about what happens to the children. They are the only “stakeholders” in this who matter. And time is not on their side.

Donavan Wilson is a researcher in the domestic policy department at the Heritage Foundation.

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