Tuesday, July 1, 2003

President Bush yesterday said about 2,000 D.C. public school children could attend private schools with the $15 million that would be provided by voucher legislation in Congress.

During a visit to KIPP DC: KEY Academy, a charter school in Southeast, Mr. Bush said the District will set a “shining example” for other cities implementing voucher plans.

“It is the beginning of an experiment that will show whether or not private-school choice makes a difference in quality education in public schools,” the president said. “I happen to believe it will.”

Mr. Bush was expressing support for a bill sponsored by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, that would create a school “choice incentive plan.” The plan would allocate $75 million for private-school vouchers, of which the District would receive $15 million.

Low-income students would be eligible for up to $7,500 a year to attend private institutions. Mr. Bush said 2,000 of the city’s 67,000 public school students could benefit.

The president said he is asking Congress for another $320 million for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated.

Mr. Bush cited KIPP DC: KEY Academy as an example of the success of alternative education, saying the federal government can help low-income students attend better schools.

“We cannot have a two-tiered education system in America — one tier for those who can afford a certain type of school and one tier for those who can’t,” the president said. “So this plan is an attempt to say the two-tiered deal is over with.”

KIPP DC: KEY Academy, located at 770 M St. SE, instructs 160 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders in a college preparatory program. The charter school was founded in the city three years ago.

The 15 KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools across the country have won praise for raising students’ test scores.

Joining Mr. Bush in supporting school options were D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Education Secretary Rod Paige. They said schools such as KIPP will inspire competition and innovation.

“I’m proud to join you and so many others in bringing choice to District families and children,” Mr. Williams said.

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat and member of the Education Committee, challenged assertions that a private-school option would improve public schools.

“We want the president, the mayor and other people to put time and attention into improving resources and quality at public schools,” Mr. Fenty said. “We don’t want them to divorce themselves from them.”

D.C. School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said many students in poorly performing schools would benefit from a private-school voucher program, and that the KIPP school is on the right track.

“A good school is a good school is a good school,” Mrs. Cafritz said. “It doesn’t matter what system it’s in.”

Valarie Garland, a single mother of two, told the president that she would try to get her children out of public schools if Congress passed the voucher plan.

She said her son’s grades were “terrible” but school administrators kept passing him to the next level. “The school system is failing my son, and it’s failing me,” she said.

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