- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Education Secretary Rod Paige said the school-voucher program in the District will be available for low-income D.C. students this fall, clearing the way to implement the program nationwide within the next few years.

“We’re very much aware of the time crunch,” Mr. Paige told an audience at the Heritage Foundation yesterday. “All of these things will be in place. … We need to get this program up and running immediately, so that children can benefit from it this fall when school starts again this coming year.”

Mr. Paige said he hopes similar voucher programs will be started immediately with federal funding by other states under a $50 million school-choice program that Congress authorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. He said the public-school system needs more competition from charter and private schools.

The secretary said he is pushing ahead this week to complete a formal agreement with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Democrat, for joint operation of the voucher program. He said he expects to open competition to choose a program administrator, which will conduct a lottery to select students for the vouchers, if more than 2,000 of the District’s 68,000 students apply.

Selection of an administrator and the lottery will occur within the next several months. In the meantime, Mr. Paige and Mr. Williams are expected to choose a group to serve as the interim director of the voucher program.

Even though the $14 million for program funding was attached to the massive spending package passed by Congress last week, it hasn’t put an end to the controversy.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, both Democrats, said at an anti-voucher rally last week that they would work to repeal the voucher provision before it is implemented in September.

“Even after this vote, don’t bank on vouchers coming to D.C.,” said Mr. Kennedy, who is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate’s education committee.

He said he wants to shift voucher funding to D.C. public schools and added that the voucher bill was placed in the omnibus spending package because it wouldn’t survive a straight up-or-down vote in the Senate. Funding for the five-year demonstration program, which was included in the annual D.C. appropriations bill, was held up by the Senate and never made it to the floor for a vote.

Mr. Paige had harsh words for the voucher opponents.

“I respectfully warn those in Congress and the District who ponder such continued political warfare that their actions will not stop us,” he said. “Their threats are unworthy and harmful. They are on the wrong side of history, and history will judge them so.”

He asked the opponents “to step aside and to give way.”

“The future of our children is at stake, and it would be unconscionable to work against their best interests, to desire failure, to actively labor to bring obstruction and sabotage.”

Mr. Paige was undeterred about the potential stoppage of the program.

“I want to see every school system freed of these monopolistic requirements” enjoyed by the public-school establishment, he said. “It prevents innovation, dulls performance. We’ll see multiple delivery systems, but the public school system will be the heavy lifter.”

He added that there are similar programs currently under way in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Colorado, but the D.C. program is different because it is the first to be federally funded.

“Hopefully, we won’t have to wait five years to see how this turns out [in the District] to have it replicated” elsewhere, the secretary said.

Mr. Paige said he and the mayor “want D.C. Choice to be a model program for the nation.”

“Of course, by themselves, opportunity scholarships will not solve the problems facing D.C. schools,” where reading, writing and mathematics achievement is the lowest in the nation.

For D.C. students, vouchers also are an issue of “social justice” and “civil rights” to allow poverty-stricken children trapped in poorly performing public schools an opportunity for better education and a brighter future, he said.

“Monopoly is simply the wrong policy for education, just as it is with every other business or endeavor,” he said. “History has proven time and time again that monopolies don’t work. In education, year after year of isolation from any alternative thinking creates an educational funk that frustrates needed change.”

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