11/2003 Friedman Report Profile: Crossing Party Lines for the Children of Washington, DC

Published November 1, 2003

District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams stunned his fellow Democrats and voucher proponents when he voiced his support for a voucher program in the nation’s capital this past Spring.

“The most powerful point I want to make in favor of supporting the voucher initiative is that, yes, you’ve got to try something different; and, too, all the impassioned pleas of how it doesn’t work are based on about as much good information as there is from those saying it will work,” Williams told a crowd of mostly conservative state legislators at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) annual meeting July 30.

“Let’s do it in such a way that for the first time, we track the outcomes of students in the private parochial schools and the charter schools and the public schools. … We’ll know after four or five years where we actually do stand,” he said, alluding to the accountability measures mandated in the DC proposal.

“I suspect what we’re going to find is that, one, it’s going to promote change in the public schools. Two, we’re going to find out that the public schools are actually better off after we did this than before. That’s what they found in Milwaukee, and I believe that the same will prevail here.”

The DC voucher proposal passed the Senate Appropriations Committee and the U.S. House of Representatives in early September. The full Senate has yet to vote on the issue.

Williams supports the measure because he believes sincerely, “We’ve got to try something new. The danger of trying something new, to me, is really not that grave. That’s how far behind we are.”

Williams’ leap of faith is indicative of a beginning shift in Democrat opinion on market-based education reform. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, another recent convert who says she will vote for DC vouchers in the Senate, believes partisan bickering is eroding the possibility of true education reform. She is willing to try something new, in the form of an idea that developed from people with differing political views on other issues.

“We can’t agree on all things,” Williams told the ALEC crowd. “I’m sure we don’t agree on some domestic issues–perhaps affirmative action … The point is, I believe in the marketplace of ideas. I believe in the free exchange of ideas. I welcome you here and open up the door to new ways of thinking. New approaches. We need that.”

Laura J. Swartley is communications director with the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana.