- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003


   Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced his support yesterday for a school-vouchers program pushed by Education Secretary Rod Paige, who has met resistance on the issue from D.C. officials.
   “I fully and strongly support [President Bushs] initiative to bring scholarships to this city,” Mr. Williams told a crowd of students, teachers and administrators at the Community Academy Public Charter School in Northwest.
   “We will find that our regular public schools will end up in better shape.”
   Mr. Williams is the first high-ranking D.C. official to support Mr. Bush’s program. The mayor had opposed bringing vouchers to the District as recently as February, when he said through a spokesman that “you are not going to see our government participate in a government-sponsored voucher program.”
   The mayor’s press secretary, Tony Bullock, said yesterday that Mr. Williams recently concluded that it is necessary for the city to participate in Mr. Bush’s national voucher “experiment,” which would bring the city an additional $76 million for education.
   “It would be malpractice … to thumb our noses at that kind of support when we are in our current fiscal crisis,” Mr. Bullock said.
   But D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, lashed out at Mr. Williams’ support of vouchers, saying the program would violate home rule. She said the mayor had not consulted her about the matter.
   D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, chairman of the council’s Education, Libraries and Recreation Committee, stopped short of endorsing vouchers, but agreed that alternative instruction methods, such as charter schools, needed to be explored.
   “Traditional public school education in place today was around 150 years ago, [and] it needs to change,” Mr. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, told the audience.
   D.C. school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz also attended the event yesterday, but did not discuss the recent uproar surrounding a column she wrote criticizing Mr. Bush’s voucher plan.
   The Washington Post reported yesterday that Mrs. Cafritz, who previously endorsed the voucher program, admitted writing the column. It also appeared on her Web site two weeks ago.
   Yesterday morning, Mrs. Cafritz praised charter-school programs. “I ask you all to put aside the need to put down one form of education to benefit another,” she said.
   Vouchers have been a matter of contention in education circles in recent years.
   More than $756 million from the fiscal 2004 budget would fund the national school-choice programs, with a small portion going toward a pilot voucher plan in the District and several other cities.
   Republican lawmakers in Congress have supported vouchers as a choice for low-income families who want to take their children out of the District’s public schools. But many D.C. leaders oppose the idea.
   “Public tax dollars should not go to sending children to private institutions that do not endure the same amount of scrutiny regarding their education measures as the [public] school system,” D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, said in a written statement.
   Leaders of teachers unions also criticized the voucher program.
   “It is disingenuous at best and duplicitous at worst to siphon money from the District’s public schools to finance vouchers for private school education when there is already a proposal to cut $100 million from the city’s school budget,” said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent organization of the Washington Teachers Union.
   “If voucher advocates really want to help students and strengthen D.C. schools, they should stand with the citizens and teachers of Washington, D.C., who oppose private school vouchers and support the use of effective educational programs and strategies,” Miss Feldman said in a statement.
   Mr. Williams and Mr. Paige, who toured Community Academy yesterday morning, read “George Shrinks,” by William Joyce, to second-graders and helped third-graders mold clay. Their visit coincided with the National Public Charter School Week.
   “I like building this house,” said third-grader Rakia Pinkney after Mr. Paige inspected her work.
   Rakia, 7, was excited to see visitors in her classroom, even though she wasn’t sure of Mr. Paige’s identity. “It’s nice they came to see us, so we can show them what we are doing,” she said.
   Fifth-grader Rhoni Jacobs, 10, agreed.
   “I got his autograph,” she said, referring to Mr. Williams, who stayed well after the tour ended to meet students and sign autographs. “It’s so exciting they came to see us because the teachers here really help us to learn,” she said.
   During the hour-long ceremony, students remained seated and quiet as they listened to Mr. Paige and Mr. Williams speak.
   Mr. Paige said educators should think outside the box, and reminded teachers and administrators that every child performs differently under each program. He said educators should tailor programs to the growing needs of American students.
   “We are a great nation, but we can never be as great of a nation as we need to be without great schools,” Mr. Paige said.
   “Some people don’t believe that we can do that, but we can. We can create schools like this one where no student is left behind,” he said later. “This is the type of community we should see elsewhere, because it works.”
   Community Academy has 500 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The school was founded in 1998 by Kent Amos, a former vice president of Xerox Corp. “We wanted to create an environment and an institution that challenged students and teachers to change, to improve education,” Mr. Amos said.
   Students who attend Community Academy wear a uniform of khaki pants or skirts, and white tops, and rarely misbehave.
   “Each room has a set of 10 rules, and if we break one of them, we have to write it out 25 times,” said Chantal Fuller, a sixth-grader. “If we do it again, it’s 50 times. And if we do it again that means they have a meeting with our parents, and it’s a 100 times, and these are all paragraphs, not just a few words.”
   Chantal, 12, wants to be a lawyer or a criminologist after she graduates from college. She said she didn’t think she could graduate and have a career had she stayed at the public school she used to attend.
   Sixth-grader Shireen Jones, 11, said everyone at Community Academy is treated equally. “At the public school I used to attend, there was a girl named Karen; she was Hispanic and she said she could not be my friend because I was black,” Shireen said. “Here, everyone is equal, and the teachers don’t play favorites.”
   

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