DC Leaders Announce Support for Vouchers

Published June 1, 2003

A new day is dawning for K-12 education in the nation’s capital.

At a May 1 event to celebrate National Charter Schools Week and announce the formation of a new charter school association for the District of Columbia, Mayor Anthony Williams, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and Councilman Kevin Chavous–head of the district’s committee on education–took the podium one after another to express their support for expanded school choice not just through charter schools, but through federally funded private school vouchers as well.

Williams, previously on record as opposing vouchers, declared his commitment to working “on a balanced approach to school choice” with the Bush administration, including U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the day’s keynote speaker.

Norton Deserted by Colleagues

This unprecedented, collective embrace of private school vouchers–in a strongly Democratic city, from top Democratic leaders–marks a near-total reversal from prior federal attempts to enact school voucher legislation for the District of Columbia.

The District’s Delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, later expressed shock and anger at her colleagues’ defiance of traditional Democratic orthodoxy and complained the move flouts “home rule,” a strongly held value in a city not represented by voting members of Congress.

But the Mayor and other leaders say the long-troubled education system desperately needs a shake-up and redesign. Cafritz, who stunned local voucher opponents several weeks ago with her sudden reversal on the voucher question, emphasized she has been “listening to the frustrations of parents, who do not have another one or two or more years to wait for every [public] school to perform.”

Williams and Chavous echoed the urgent need to provide DC students with more school options, but noted their support for federally funded vouchers is contingent on Congress increasing federal funding for the city’s traditional public and charter schools too.

In particular, they would like to see the federal government pick up the “state-level” tab for DC’s exorbitant special education costs and enhance funding for DC’s charter school program, which enjoys strong local, bipartisan support but has slowed in growth in recent years, mostly due to difficulties in facilities financing.

New Charter Association Launched

The primary intent of the May 1 event, held at the Community Academy Public Charter School, was to announce a new association of DC charter schools that “will help make our city’s already thriving charter school movement even stronger,” according to one of its founding leaders, Irasema Salcido, head of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy.

Salcido was joined by Community Academy’s founder, Kent Amos, and Don Hense, the head of Friendship House, which operates four charter schools in the District. Leaders from 25 DC charter schools represented the new association, which presented Paige with a plaque in appreciation of his support for the charter school movement.

The goals of the new association are “to advocate for the needs of DC charter schools in a strong and united voice” and “to provide charter schools access to services, resources, and information critical to their effectiveness in delivering a quality education.”

The potential combination of an enhanced charter school program in DC–it already serves more than 15 percent of local public school students–and a new private school voucher program could at last provide the pressure needed to force improvements in the city’s beleaguered public schools, explained Chavous.

“This new willingness of local leadership to embrace change could at last make the nation’s capital the nation’s model of effective K-12 education,” he told School Reform News.

Parents with students in local public schools seem to agree.

“I applaud what they’re doing,” said Victoria Harris, whose family of eight includes foster and adopted children in addition to her own. “I would use vouchers so my kids would have a better chance for college, and get to experience different environments.”

She warned, however, that her support for vouchers is conditional on local leaders “making sure that they only serve the poor kids who really need them.”

Kelly Amis Stewart is an education consultant and co-author of Making it Count: A Guide to High-Impact Education Philanthropy with Chester E. Finn Jr. Her email address is [email protected].