- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

The House Government Reform Committee is scheduled to vote today on the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003. The legislation would provide $15 million next fiscal year for vouchers for poor D.C. students. It is a necessary piece of legislation because of many reasons, chief among them overwhelming support for choice, low expectations, outright mismanagement and years of stumbling as authorities try to “reform” D.C. Public Schools. We urge bipartisan support for the measure.

Some D.C. leaders — including Mayor Tony Williams, Superintendent Paul Vance, School Board President Peggy Cafritz and Education Committee Chairman Kevin Chavous — readily admit that widespread and consistent gains in student achievement remain elusive after years despite rising school budgets. As the superintendent himself has said, he is concerned with the obvious “stagnation” on standardized testing of students in middle schools as well as junior and senior high schools.

Yet, many leaders prefer to arbitrarily pour money into displaced priorities and a dysfunctional bureaucracy, instead of allowing parents to use public dollars for private education programs. For example, George Springer, head of the Washington Teachers Union, complained just yesterday morning on Fox 5 News that starting teacher salaries — which are higher than the national average — are an “important part of the problem” regarding low student performance. Again, the problems are low expectations and high salaries. On Tuesday, Linda Moody — president of the D.C. PTA, who also sat on the school board while test scores tanked — conceded at a forum held by the Manhattan Institute that she and other authorities “failed” to maximize every dollar. Yet, she nonetheless complained that the central problem is, and was, that public schools are “underfunded.”

Money is not the problem. The monopoly of D.C. Public Schools has depressed student achievement. The overseers of that monopoly shuffle the chairs on the deck with such alternative programs as magnet schools, bilingual schools, arts schools, charter schools and the like — all of which are fine. However, those options provide a safe haven for that monopoly to continue costly support for underperformance and mediocrity, while offering opportunities to a very limited pool of school-age children. Granting parents the ultimate choice — the financial resources to opt out — is the best recourse.

Any member of Rep. Tom Davis’ House Government Reform Committee who doubts that time is of the essence — including anti-voucher member Eleanor Holmes Norton — should revisit standardized test scores on either the D.C. Public Schools Web site or that of the National Assessment for Educational Progress, where they can verify that the vast majority of D.C. schoolchildren are being punished by a system that for too long ranks at or near the very bottom. They also should listen to the District’s Democratic mayor, who is struggling to lift up the “40 percent” of his constituency that is “reading at a third-grade level.” As he said at the Manhattan Institute luncheon, “These kids need help right now. … “We’ve got to move, we’ve got to take a chance, we’ve got to take a risk” and allow parents to opt out. Indeed, waiting for more of the same from the “reform” movement will not make that happen.

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