Buses Advertise the Failure of DC Schools

Published March 1, 2001

The message that went rolling through the streets of Washington, DC in the first days of the New Year was hardly one to inspire confidence in the capital city’s public schools. To some, it was another reminder why private-school vouchers are needed to shake the system out of its lethargy and to give children a ticket to better opportunities.

“DC Public Schools Wants You!!! Go to Class – It’ a Blast,” proclaimed an advertisement splashed on the sides of 75 Metro buses. The signs were part of a $41,000 ad campaign designed and paid for by the Washington, DC public-school administration.

The objective was to lure truants back to school. But the lack of subject-verb agreement and the missing “s” to complete a contraction served mostly to draw new attention to problems the 69,000-student system has with literacy.

A new DC school board–an unusual hybrid of five elected and four mayor-appointed members–had just taken office amid high hopes for a fresh start for the beleaguered school system. Then, The Washington Post spotted and reported the grammatically mangled message.

School Superintendent Paul Vance was outraged. Calling the error “absolutely inexcusable,” he said “it reinforces the perception that we’re less than competent.” His staff said the slogan went to the contractor with the “s” but came back on a proof without it–and no one caught the error.

School board members said they did not blame Vance, who took over last July. But the error was just the latest in a long string of embarrassing foul-ups for the DC school system going back to previous administrations. For instance, a year ago, school officials distributed a program that had the word “tomorrow” misspelled on its cover. A student pointed out the error to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

The staff errors are symptomatic of a larger malady: the widespread failure of the DC schools to teach reading, writing, and spelling at a basic level. A 1999 study done for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation found the DC public schools were the least efficient in the nation when spending was measured against indicators of basic literacy. According to this calculation, schools in the nation’s capital wasted 23 percent of their tax funds when literacy was figured as the bottom-line outcome of education.

Almost three-fourths of the District’s fourth-graders score “below basic” on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In 1998, the 105th Congress attempted to help low-income children in some of the city’s most woeful schools by passing a bill to give a few thousand of them public scholarships worth up to $3,200 to enable them to transfer to private schools. The margin of passage for S1502–sponsored by Senators Dan Coats and Joseph Lieberman–was close in the House but it was supported by six Democrats, all of whom are still in Congress. President Clinton–who had sent his own daughter to an elite private school in Washington, DC–vetoed the bill.

Last year, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas proposed an amendment to HR2–the Title I reform bill, a/k/a the Student Results Act–that would have provided for scholarships for children trapped in poor, failing, and dangerous schools. The Armey amendment failed 166-257.

Were the 107th Congress to pass voucher legislation, prospects seem good that President Bush–a voucher supporter, unlike former President Clinton–would sign it. The problem now is getting a bill to him through a Senate and House almost evenly split between the two major parties.

“I, for one, would wholeheartedly support” a revival of the voucher push, said senior Armey aide Heidi Stirrup. “There are plenty of others who think it’s a waste of time–would never get out of the Senate and would be even harder to get out of the House. But I tell you, if you’re a black parent whose child is trapped in a failing school, you’ll be outraged that someone is not trying to help you help your child escape. We have got to carry on this effort–whether we fail or not. We cannot give up.”

A Washington Post poll in May 1998 showed 65 percent of low-income black residents of the District support the use of federal dollars to help send their children to private or religious schools.

At least choice within the DC public school system continues to gain ground. Last fall, there were 33 charter schools on 40 campuses in Washington, enrolling almost 10,000 students, an increase of 40 percent from 1999. That’s 14 percent of DC’s public school enrollment. Washington eventually could become the first city where all public schools are charter schools.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].