Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Monday marked the opening of the District’s summer school program and, as in recent years, thousands of children are expected to attend. In fact, the targeted summer-school population is 10,000, or one in six students — numbers that speak volumes about D.C. Public Schools trying to accomplish in six weeks over the long, hot summer what it fails to do in nine months. If the White House and Congress do what they ought to do, though, fewer students will be suffering next summer.

The Bush administration proposes spending $756 million on school choice programs, including $75 million for a choice-incentive fund. The District would receive a large portion of that $75 million — $15 million — for scholarships so that poor children would be allowed to attend private schools. The administration also wants to boost funding for charter schools. That would certainly help the District, which is expected to have three dozen charter schools by the start of the next school year. The charter schools would get $320 million.

Why the funding for choice? The costly inadequacies of traditional D.C. schooling are secret to no one — including President Bush. “Let me put it bluntly,” the president said yesterday during a visit to a D.C. charter school. “[T]he District scored below every single state in the union in terms of basic skills” on recent standardized exams, and that is “unacceptable.”

To be sure, those “unacceptable” consequences of the status quo will continue if school-choice legislation doesn’t pass bipartisan muster on Capitol Hill. Federal lawmakers don’t have to look hard at all to find broad and deep support. Mayor Williams, Education Committee Chairman Kevin Chavous and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz all support the federal choice initiative. D.C. parents, who have shown their enthusiasm for choice by supporting the charter school boon and signing their children up for privately financed vouchers, renewed their support yesterday. Mitzy Franklin, a single mother of six who has a son at KIPP Academy, where the president spoke yesterday, told Bloomberg.com that vouchers are good for schools and children. “This [KIPP} program is pretty good for Montae, but we need more options for education, more ways to enable kids to get to college.”

As things now stand, D.C. Public Schools is having considerable trouble getting kids to read on grade level and do simple arithmetic. Scores from the 2002 NAEP reading exams show that 69 percent of D.C. fourth-graders performed below basic level. No wonder students by the thousands are pouring into sweltering classrooms every summer.

Naysayers of vouchers (teacher unions and the PTA, for example) argue that they drain money from public schools. We have always contended — along with other proponents — that public school dollars should follow the child into the schoolhouse and classroom instead of bureaucracies. There simply is no other practical or easy alternative to bolster educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged children. D.C. parents and top leaders acknowledge as much. Congress should, too.

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