- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and other opponents of school reform are hoping the city’s voucher program will fail. In fact, Mrs. Norton called the federally funded scholarship plan “a launching pad to nowhere.” The D.C. program is a pilot program for poor parents already frustrated with the slow pace of reforms in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). They are anxiously hoping the voucher plan will indeed be implemented this fall. We are, too. Who is chosen to participate in the plan is as important as how it is implemented.

There are two dozen or so public schools that constantly lag in performance, and many of them already have been targeted for what DCPS calls “transformation.” For example, at Stanton Elementary School in Southeast, only 13 percent of students perform at or above the proficient level in reading, and 89 percent of students are eligible for free- or reduced lunch, which means the school itself and many families in its neighborhood probably meet the low-academic and low-income requirements of the voucher bill. Similarly situated is Cooke Elementary in Northwest, which has fewer students in the free or reduced-lunch program (79 percent), but has a large English-as-a-second-language population (211 students), and only 20 percent read at or above the proficient level. At another transformation school, Phelps High in Northeast, only 5 percent of students read at the proficient level or better, and 65 percent are eligible for the lunch program.

The so-called transformations of these schools have yet to materialize, and, with the exception of charter schools, poor parents have no where to turn except toward other failing schools. A study by the Manhattan Institute suggests that had those schools on the transformation list also been faced with “the prospect of having vouchers offered to their students,” reading scores would improve. The study of Florida’s A-Plus program, which focuses on choice and accountability, said that some underperforming Florida schools were motivated to improve “simply to avoid” embarrassing test scores, while “the voucher effect” motivated others. (See the column on the adjacent page.)

Accountability and competition are foes of the status quo and the “advocates” who propose one-size-fits-all “quality” public schools. The demographics prove that poor D.C. families are locked in those transformation schools, and, therefore, their neighborhoods.

It is important that the chief voucher proponents — Mayor Tony Williams, D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz — join hands with grass-roots organizations to inform parents about their newest option. While supporters might feel like they are behind the “eight ball,” the reality is that poor families and many pro-school choice organizations — especially D.C. Parents for School Choice Inc. — view the federal voucher plan not as a launching pad to nowhere, but as “the beginning of a promise” to lead them out of poverty.

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