- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton yesterday angrily denounced a House bill that would create a federally funded school-voucher system for city students as a “new low in congressional imitations of colonialism” as Mayor Anthony A. Williams supported the concept.

“It is unconscionable to direct any public money away from public schools to a private alternative when public charter alternatives are cut and chronically underfunded,” said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting congressional representative.

Mr. Williams, a Democrat, told the House Government Reform Committee that he endorses vouchers for students trapped in failing schools, but he opposes the bill proposed by Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, because it would add “another layer of complexity” to the school system.

That bill would authorize an independent, seven-member private nonprofit corporation — which would have one member appointed by the mayor — to award $7 million next year and $10 million a year by fiscal 2006 for 8,300 tuition scholarships.

Mrs. Norton said she was not consulted on the Flake plan and that it amounted to congressional imposition of vouchers on her constituents in violation of home rule for the District. “It’s closer to insult than inclusion,” she said.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the D.C. Board of Education, said Mr. Flake’s proposal “is a viable alternative to low-performing schools” but that District officials should help select directors to run the scholarship program and that the school board should appoint three of the panel’s seven members.

She also said vouchers should be used only at private schools in the District. “Allowing students to attend private schools in Maryland and Virginia diminishes our civic culture and denudes our neighborhoods,” she added.

“This is a work in progress,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and committee chairman. “You hate to throw these resources out the window.”

The mayor said he is working with congressional supporters and U.S. Education Department officials on a voucher plan. In February, President Bush made $75 million available for voucher programs nationwide, and Secretary of Education Rod Paige began lobbying city officials to create one.

“I cannot tell parents that they must continue to wait while there are other outlets in our midst,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Davis and Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, disputed assertions by Mrs. Norton and other Democrats that the voucher plan would divert money from public schools.

“This is new money,” Mr. Shays said. There would be no reduction of the $116 million in federal funds for D.C. public schools, he said.

“No parent is forced to take a voucher. The money is in the fund. If it is not taken advantage of, it will remain in the fund and accumulate,” Mr. Shays said.

Mr. Davis said hundreds of D.C. children with handicaps and learning disabilities attend private schools in Northern Virginia. “We already have a voucher system in the District,” he said. “We pay an exorbitant amount of private school tuition for special-needs children.”

Mr. Williams and D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the council’s education committee, both argued that additional school choice through vouchers would bring more positive pressure on public schools to reform.

“The main impetus for reform has been the emergence of charter schools in the District,” Mr. Chavous said. “After years of overseeing education-reform efforts in this city, I am absolutely convinced that no traditional school system can reform itself internally.

“Reform can only occur through pressure. And the best pressure comes by way of school choice. One size does not fit all. Different teaching methods, as well as different learning environments, affect student performance,” Mr. Chavous said.

Education Undersecretary Eugene W. Hickok disputed assertions by voucher opponents that the private school option would “cream” the best students from public schools and weaken them further.

“We find no evidence to buttress that claim. To the contrary, research by Caroline Hoxby of Harvard and others has found that students who take advantage of private school choice options are typically at least as educationally and economically disadvantaged as students who remain in the public schools,” Mr. Hickok said.

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