- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

A group of D.C. parents is lobbying for the Bush administration’s plan to implement a school-voucher program in the District, which they say is ripe for education alternatives.

Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, says the public school system’s declining enrollment, the long waiting lists for D.C. charter schools and the large number of D.C. children attending schools outside city boundaries all point to the need for the voucher plan.

Mrs. Walden-Ford, whose group numbers about 3,000, says she learned the value of alternative education five years ago with her son, William, then a struggling ninth-grader.

“He was making F’s and trouble at Roosevelt [Senior High School],” she says. “He felt like the school didn’t care about him. He didn’t feel safe, so he acted out.”

A neighbor offered to help her pay $3,000 of the then-$4,000 tuition she needed to send her son to private school — the “unofficial voucher program,” she calls it.

“In one semester at Archbishop Carroll [High School], his life turned around,” Mrs. Walden-Ford says. “I saw the change in this child. Now they are trying to make us feel bad for supporting choice — because we want to educate our children.”

She says her son — now a 20-year-old weapons technician in the Marine Corps — exemplifies the benefits of school choice.

Another parent, Tracey Tucker of Petworth, says she is concerned about her 7-year-old son’s future now that his school — Community Academy Public Charter School — has discontinued its sixth grade.

“I am on a waiting list at another charter school, but who knows what will happen?” she says.

“I would like him to be able to use a voucher.”

“You know, this argument [over vouchers] seems to only be about statehood and home rule,” she says. “So that means we should let our kids fail over political principles?”

Mrs. Walden-Ford and Mrs. Tucker say their experiences are representative of city parents, even though polls conducted 1981 and last year found the majority of city residents oppose voucher programs.

The Bush administration has proposed a voucher plan that has won support from Mayor Anthony A. Williams, school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat.

The Bush plan — proposed by Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican — includes $75 million for school-choice programs around the nation, including a pilot program in the District. It is not clear how many D.C. students would have access to the program or how much money each would receive in benefits.

Congress is considering the Flake bill, which would provide “opportunity scholarships” of up to $5,000 for about 8,300 impoverished children to attend private schools.

The bill was originally introduced by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and passed by Congress in 1997 but vetoed by President Clinton. It would authorize $7 million to $10 million in fiscal 2004-2008. It would not divert D.C. school funds but involve “new money,” says Mr. Flake.

Mr. Flake says that while some say D.C. residents don’t support vouchers, he has heard otherwise, noting Mrs. Walden-Ford’s group, the 7,573 city children who applied for 1,000 scholarships offered by the private Washington Scholarship Fund in past years, and a petition signed by 2,000 D.C. residents in support of a voucher program.

Still, what is particularly objectionable to D.C. officials about the proposal — even those who support a voucher plan — is Mr. Flake’s plan to create a seven-member private, independent nonprofit corporation to administer the scholarship program. Six of those members would be appointed by President Bush, one by the D.C. mayor.

“The Flake bill strikes a new low in the long history of congressional imitations of colonialism,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting congressional representative.

Although the District has embraced charter schools, vouchers have been more controversial. 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 school systems and skim off the top students.

“Individual parents come to a point where they have to decide how to get the best education for their children,” said D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat.

“But from my perspective … I have to look at what is best for an entire community, not just a few.”

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