- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

There’s no single more important priority in our capital city than improving the education of its children.Unfortunately, however, the city’s schools are failing to meet their educational needs.The statistics are alarming.More than three-quarters of D.C.’s fourth-graders are not even achieving basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. The same results are seen at the eighth-grade level. For one solution, I believe the premise is simple: for studentsconfinedtoan underperforming public school, school choice would empower parents to select a better education for their children.

That’s why in the Appropriations bill I authored for the District for the next fiscal year, I included $10 million to implement a school choice program.This marks the first time in the history of the District that a school choice program has been approved by Congress.I’m proud to be a long-time supporter of school choice for this city and I am pleased to be in a position to advance this initiative proposed by President Bush.

The children of the District should not be condemned to failing schools.They should not be confined to a school system that already spends, per student, amongst the highest amounts in the nation, yet still continues to receive a failing grade for its academic standards and accountability in the classroom.No child should ever be forced to bear the burden of such an egregious educational system.

In testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform on May 9, the under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Eugene Hickok, presented the facts of the District’s inability to turnaround its failing school system: “Let’s consider the performance of D.C. students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, as it’s called; the assessment measures the performance of students over time in reading, writing, math, and other core academic subjects.In the most recent mathematics assessment, administered in 2000, only 6 percent of D.C. fourth-graders tested at the proficient or advanced levels, the levels that show that students have demonstrated competency over challenging matter. A lower percentage of students in the District demonstrated proficiency than was the case for any state.At the other end of the scale, 76 percent of D.C. fourth-graders scored at the ‘below basic’ level, which means that they could not demonstrate even partial mastery of the math skills and knowledge that are appropriate at the fourth-grade level.The 2000 eighth-grade math results were very similar; only 6 percent of students tested at the proficient or advanced levels, and 77 percent were below basic.”

Mr. Hickok went on to further say that “looking at the quality of a school system requires more than just reviewing scores on achievement tests.But when we look at other indicators, they too show that D.C. public schools are not providing the education that children in the District need.”

Fortunately for D.C.’s young people, there are leaders — both in the District government, like Mayor Anthony Williams, and in D.C.’s educational system, like Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz — who are committed to school choice. These are people who have been willing to think outside the box, and their efforts at this early stage have borne fruit.

Mr. Hickok is correct.Even when we do look beyond the scores of achievement tests and the school system’s academic standards, we find a growing list of thousands of families fighting to get their children on the waiting list to attend one of the city’s charter schools.

Currently, there are 65,000 students in D.C. public schools, 14,500 attending private and parochial schools, while 11,500 young people in our nation’s capital are students at one of the city’s 37 charter schools.The District is home to the largest charter school movement in the nation, and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to visit some of these incredibly vibrant schools.Many parents I have talked to have put their faith in D.C.’s charter school movement and are applauding our recent efforts in Congress to implement a school choice program. Those whose children remain on the waiting list to get into a charter school are downright excited about the idea that a new school choice program might help them pay tuition bills at private or parochial schools. There’s no question about it: D.C. families deeply desire and deserve our help in improving educational opportunities for their children.

Education options have always been available to those who can afford them. Many families sacrifice to provide the best education possible for their children. Others simply cannot afford to choose. A school choice program in the District opens the door for parents to “rescue” their children from failing schools and gives them an opportunity to place them in an environment where every child is encouraged to achieve success.

School choice isn’t for everyone. In many school districts across America, especially those in the 11th Congressional District of New Jersey, students are challenged to achieve their dreams by a caring corps of teachers, administrators and indeed, parents, both in public and private settings. But, not every child in America is fortunate enough to attend such a public school or has the means to afford a first-rate private or parochial education, especially in our nation’s capital. For every child in the District to be able to achieve the American dream of receiving a quality education, we have an obligation to act on their behalf. Leaving thousands of District children trapped in failing schools is not an option. The parents and children of Washington are counting on us.

Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey Republican, is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia.

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