- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2014


There’s a tug of war taking place in the nation’s capital, and school-choice advocates should push forward with all deliberate speed.

On the surface, the tug appears to be over money. That is to say, if D.C. leaders pass legislation Tuesday to help college students pay for school, then they risk losing federal tuition money.

At least that is how Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional delegate, interprets the pending measure.

A maker and reputable interpreter of laws, Ms. Norton, a Democrat, has been on the wrong side of school choice before, however.

In fact, I think she’s using the wrong stick to even gauge whether funding will be gained or lost if the bill she’s concerned about wins D.C. Council approval.

Titled the D.C. Promise Establishment Act of 2013, the measure calls for using income-based guideposts to help D.C. graduates pay for post-secondary technical schooling and college.

Council member David A. Catania’s bill could work in tandem with the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant, or D.C. TAG, which Congress created in 1999 to offer students with few higher-education options in the city the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities. A major difference is that the D.C. Promise eligibility ceiling is $283,272.

There are other key differences.

As Mr. Catania points out, “individuals from families with up to $1 million in annual income can participate in D.C. TAG, as well as students who graduated from high schools outside the District. Moreover, D.C. TAG assistance is primarily directed at public, four-year institutions, whereas the D.C. Promise can be used at all accredited institutions of higher education, as well as accredited career programs.”

That Mrs. Norton and other federal appropriators think D.C. Promise and D.C. TAG are competitors is interesting, considering the former targets poor D.C. kids who matriculated D.C. schools while the latter does not. Indeed, D.C. TAG encourages D.C. kids, including wealthy ones, to attend schools outside the District.

Ms. Norton said recently that House and Senate appropriators do not want the federal government to pay D.C. TAG if it and D.C. Promise have “similar funding levels.”

Fortunately, in a letter, Mr. Catania and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tried to allay Ms. Norton’s concerns about the potential of competing financial aid programs in a letter last week.

See, while the supporters of D.C. TAG and D.C. Promise don’t say so, both programs are, for all practical and applicable matters, school voucher programs.

Both programs use public funds to bridge a financial gap — whether it’s to a public college or a private school — just like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was created by Congress to lift the boats of poverty-stricken kids.

There’s little doubt that D.C. Promise will become a new D.C. voucher program masked as an old college-access opportunity.

But isn’t that a doozie? Democrats and liberals fighting over access, opportunity and spending? The tug of war isn’t over money. This battle is over political one-upmanship and legacies.

Ms. Norton knows progressive politics hold the keys to the city right now — and she should be warned that if she isn’t careful, voters and other stakeholders can easily turn her key over to another progressive.

After all, dozens are already lined up for this year’s elections.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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