DC Parents Call for Vouchers

Published May 1, 2003

Two recently introduced Congressional school choice proposals that target Washington, DC students are heating up the voucher debate in the nation’s capital once again.

In a sign that past failures may not be repeated this year, District parents and education reform advocates packed a March 15 public forum held by DC City Councilman Kevin Chavous, chair of the Council’s Education, Libraries and Recreation Committee. The vast majority of those testifying in the six-hour discussion, “The Availability of School Choice in the District of Columbia,” spoke in support of publicly funded school choice involving private schools and mentioned the two federal proposals.

One measure, the “Choice Incentive Fund,” is included in President George W. Bush’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2004 and would reserve federal funding to expand school options in DC in all education sectors–public, charter, and private. The second measure is Congressman Jeff Flake’s (R-Arizona) “DC School Choice Act,” which would create a publicly financed private school voucher program for low-income DC students.

Broad Support for Choice

Councilman David Catania said he feels compelled to support school vouchers for District children because low-income DC families have few if any educational choices, while parents with resources can afford private school options for their children, and many middle-income parents can make the choice of “a U-haul and a move to the suburbs.”

Participating parents applauded and echoed that sentiment. Jackie Pinckney-Hackett, a local PTA president whose two sons attend District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), testified she supports school choice because “it benefits the student and encourages competition.” And, she added, she had no problem with the federal government funding school vouchers for DC children.

“If Uncle Sam wants to foot the bill for a school choice program, I suggest we take it, given that this money is not part of the DCPS budget,” she said. “Besides, how often is it that our relatives offer to give us anything?”

Other parents shared personal stories of sacrifice, including one mother who is putting her own college education on hold so she can afford parochial school tuition for her children. Virginia Walden-Ford, founder of DC Parents for School Choice and a prominent local activist on this issue, said she was “pleased that parents at last had the opportunity to speak out on their own behalf.” She called the parents’ testimony “extremely powerful.”

Momentum for Choice

Chavous said momentum to expand school choice options in the District has increased in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Zelman decision, which upheld the constitutionality of parents using publicly funded school vouchers at private schools in Cleveland, Ohio. Chavous shared his view that “one size doesn’t fit all” with regard to schools, and urged the Committee to explore every option available to students.

Chavous noted the Council’s steadfast support of the DC charter school program and its significant benefit to the local K-12 system as an “engine of change.” Two of those testifying spoke primarily about the choices already made available in the District by the more than 30 charter schools in operation, detailing ways the Council could further strengthen and expand the charter program, already considered one of the strongest in the nation.

Not All in Favor

Nevertheless, Chavous argued any expansion of school choice in DC should be at the behest of the community and not imposed by federal authorities–an issue that is central to much of the on-the-ground opposition to federal education measures aimed specifically at students in the District.

The Council’s most outspoken critic of the federal school choice proposals, Councilman Adrian Fenty, made it clear that regardless of the purpose, he considers unconstitutional any attempt by the federal government to bypass “home rule” and legislate policy for the District. In early March, Fenty introduced a measure “to declare the sense of the Council” to oppose President Bush’s “school voucher program” and “to recommend that the funds be forwarded” to DC public and charter schools instead. The measure was tabled.

Anise Jenkins, of Stand Up for Democracy, testified that her organization also strongly opposes any federal attempt to impose policy on DC. She noted that while she personally opposes publicly funded vouchers, she was not representing the views of the organization on the issue.

During the public forum, Fenty voiced his opposition to vouchers, saying his job is to help “every child” in DC and stating he hasn’t seen any “demonstrable impact” of other school voucher programs. Former DCPS program coordinator Jeff Edmonson, now with the 21st Century School Fund, said vouchers are “bad public policy” and claimed there is “no proof that competition will improve the public schools.” Edmonson later charged that “vouchers fragment communities.”

Chavous closed the hearing by stating his opposition to Congressman Flake’s bill, which he likened to former Representative Richard Armey’s proposal (see sidebar). However, the Councilman admitted being intrigued by the White House proposal–which would allow District city leaders latitude in designing a comprehensive school choice plan–and said he would continue discussions with U.S. Secretary of Education Roderick Paige to see if and how it might result in increased support for all of the District’s students and schools.

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].