School-reform advocates won a major victory in the House last week, when representatives narrowly approved a bill to establish a five-year pilot program that would provide federally funded vouchers to low-income children in the nation’s capital so they could attend private schools. For the next fiscal year, the plan would provide at least 1,300 children with up to $7,500 in scholarships. The scholarships would provide needy families the opportunity for their children to escape one of the nation’s worst school systems, whose per-pupil expenditure exceeds $11,000.
The razor-thin 209-208 vote, which took place while nine Democratic presidential candidates participated in a debate in Baltimore sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, followed party lines. Ninety-three percent of Republicans voted for the voucher bill. Among Democrats, 98.5 percent opposed the bill, including 33 of the 37 members of the black caucus eligible to cast votes in the House. (The remaining four were attending the presidential debate.) At the debate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose office said the multimillionaire senator has not yet decided whether to send his 5-year-old child to D.C. public schools, elicited applause when he announced his opposition to vouchers. So did Sen. John Kerry, who attended St. Albans School (current tuition: $21,837 per year) for several years as a young Brahmin.
Meanwhile, on the same day as the voucher vote, six D.C. Council members — Sharon Ambrose, Jack Evans, Adrian Fenty, Jim Graham, Kathy Patterson and Vincent Orange — climbed aboard the presidential bandwagon of Howard Dean, who last year described vouchers as “a harebrained idea.” (Mr. Dean attended the elite Browning School in Manhattan — current annual tuition: $23,995 — before leaving after the eighth grade for St. George’s boarding school, which costs $30,000 today.)
The debate over vouchers now moves to the Senate, where Milton Academy boarding school (current tuition: $29,275) alumnus Ted Kennedy is widely expected to filibuster the D.C. appropriations bill, which includes a plan to provide $13 million for vouchers, public schools and charter schools. It is worth noting that Mayor Williams, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and the chairman of the council’s Education Committee, Kevin Chavous, have endorsed voucher programs for the District. A growing body of evidence has shown that voucher programs provide urban public-school systems with competition that generates academic improvement among the students who remain. Senators would be performing a major disservice to the poor students, as well as black and Hispanic students, if they repeated the ill-advised action of the Congressional Black Caucus by voting against school vouchers.