- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams made an impassioned plea yesterday on Capitol Hill for Senate approval of a school-voucher program that would provide $13 million in federally funded scholarships for low-income D.C. families with children in failing public schools.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result,” the mayor, a Democrat, said in asking senators to fund the voucher program instead of putting all taxpayer funds into the public school system.

The issue is scheduled to come up for a vote in the Senate this morning, although its fate will rest on the tactics of voucher opponents led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

Mr. Williams, D.C. school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, who heads the council’s education committee, have bucked D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the National Education Association and other voucher opponents.

The pilot program would allow about 2,000 D.C. students in the District’s worst public schools to attend private and parochial schools.

“Why am I on the limb on all this?” Mr. Williams asked at a press conference with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, both supporters of the voucher program requested by the mayor as part of the District’s funding bill.

“The first major reason is because I think we have a disaster under way,” Mr. Williams said. With more than 200 homicides a year and a 50 percent school dropout rate, “every year in this city you’ve got violence, lost lives, lost opportunities.”

Education is “the number-one civil rights issue in our country” and the District’s large number of failing public schools and huge achievement gap between white and black students is “a very frightening situation,” Mr. Williams said.

“We have a city that is much too divided, rich from poor; much too divided, those who know and those who don’t. … I have one of the most knowledgeable populations in the country, [and] 40 percent of my city is reading at a third-grade level.”

“The reason why we don’t take extraordinary action is because there’s a slow-moving train wreck instead of a rapid, urgent train wreck,” the mayor said. “But it’s a train wreck nonetheless, and we ought to do something different, do something about it.”

Mr. Frist said he had not taken a vote count, but hoped the measure would pass. Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said it depends on whether Democrats mount a filibuster, which would take 60 votes to stop.

“I think we can win it if it’s an up-or-down vote [requiring a majority], but we might have difficulty getting 60 votes to stop a filibuster,” Mr. Allen said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said he was talking to every Democratic senator to ask them to oppose the voucher program.

Mrs. Feinstein, who helped draft the plan, said she supported it because it adds $39 million in “new money” for education in the District, equally divided for public school improvement, charter schools and the voucher initiative.

She said an accountability provision she drafted, accepted by Republican leaders, would require private schools that accept vouchers to test their students with the same test used by public schools.

“I think it’s very important that [Mr. Williams] wants to try something new,” Mrs. Feinstein said. “I think it’s very important that $10,800 is paid for each student in the D.C. schools, and yet test scores remain so low,” she said.

The mayor met privately with Senate Democrats for lunch, but the reception “was very cool,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, who said she opposes the voucher initiative.

Mrs. Landrieu said she will offer an amendment to require private schools to accept vouchers as full payment for tuition, even if their usual tuition is more than $7,500.

She said her amendment also would require schools accepting vouchers to hire only teachers with college degrees and to comply with all federal anti-discrimination laws.

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