DC Schools Chief Blasts Scholarship Program

Published February 1, 2003

Privately funded scholarship programs that give low-income families access to private schools in Washington, DC dupe black mothers into sending their children to “inferior Catholic schools” that are no better than the public school system, the president of the District of Columbia Board of Education charged in a recent Policy Forum hosted by the Cato Institute.

“I will never denigrate a parent’s election of where to send their child to school, but I do think … parents are being fooled,” said Peggy Cooper Cafritz on December 10. “The parochial school system in this city has not received the kind of investment from the Catholic Church that’s necessary to have sterling schools.”

Barbara Mikens, a DC parent in the audience, took exception to Cafritz’s statement about poor parents being “bamboozled” since it implied “we’re not educated enough or concerned enough to investigate the type of quality education that we want for our children.” She recounted how she checked on her daughter’s private school in many ways, including making unannounced visits.

“We want quality education for our kids. We’ve been offered everything but that at public schools,” said Mikens. “If our neighborhood schools were up to par, we parents in the District would not be seeking alternatives like private schools or charter schools. Academic excellence is almost unheard of in the majority of public schools.”

The Forum was convened to coincide with the publication of a new Cato Policy Study by analyst Casey J. Lartigue Jr., titled “The Need for Educational Freedom in the Nation’s Capital.” Also participating in the exchange was panelist Virginia Walden-Ford, a founder and national board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the founder-president of DC Parents for School Choice. Chairing the Forum was David Salisbury, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Without specifically naming the program, Cafritz took particular aim at the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which offers scholarships to low-income families who otherwise could not afford to pull their children out of public schools they regard as failing their children. Cafritz said “the real private schools that are very good don’t want and cannot afford to take the amount of the vouchers” being offered or currently proposed.

“When you look at where the children who have gone to schools through Teddy Forstmann’s and John Walton’s program, they have gone primarily to inferior Catholic schools and Christian academies whose scores are no better than the District of Columbia public school system,” she stated.

While admitting Catholic schools do “offer order,” Cafritz said “you cannot tell me that St. Augustine’s at Fifteenth and V offers anything better than a normal public school.”

Ford, who used a scholarship to educate one of her children, countered that the bottom line is what works for the child and for the parents to find a school that best meets the child’s needs. All parents want is for the public schools to educate their children, she said, but after years of being told things would be better “this time next year,” she questioned just how long they would have to wait before the DC school system turned around.

“You have no idea what it’s like to be stuck in a school that’s performing badly,” Ford said. After trying the public schools, she realized she had to do something: “I had to save my child.”

Cafritz granted that what Ford said was “very nice,” but said “we cannot make public policy decisions based on anecdotes.”

Salisbury had introduced the three panelists–Lartigue, Cafritz, and Ford–with the observation that disagreements about the DC public schools arise not so much over the existence of serious problems in the system as over what solutions are appropriate. However, the Forum audience heard little agreement even over the District’s problems as Cafritz muted her earlier criticism of the DC school system and vigorously defended its current efforts at improvement.

Congress Is Responsible for DC

While Members of Congress may pass laws to hold states accountable for the performance of their individual public education systems, the U.S. Constitution holds Members of Congress responsible for the District of Columbia, including its public education system. Article I, Section VIII of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District.” When the District’s public school system was created in 1804, then-President Thomas Jefferson was named school board president.

As Lartigue’s study carefully documents, the District’s school system has been troubled with student achievement problems for much of the last century, long before the mid-century “white flight” occurred. For example, in 1939, the superintendent of DC schools decried “illiterates” in the District’s white schools. The superintendent in 1947 said Washington, DC had “one of the sorriest school systems in the country.”

The latest data from the District signal no change for the better, despite per-student spending levels that are among the highest in the country. For example:

  • In 2001, DC public school students averaged 798 on the SAT, compared to the national average of 1020 and a DC private school average of 1200;
  • In 2001, 70 percent of tenth- and eleventh-graders performed math at the “Below Basic” level on the Stanford 9 achievement test, demonstrating little or no mastery of fundamental skills at their grade level.

A month after taking office in January 2001 and visiting schools in the District, Cafritz labeled half of the system’s teachers unqualified or incompetent, a statement she later modified to apply only to high school teachers. She also said all of the District’s high schools “are generally lousy,” except for four she named. Her superintendent at the time admitted the teachers the District hired “are teachers who could not get jobs anywhere else.”

In an attempt to spur some changes in the District by means of competition, Congress in 1998 passed a small voucher plan, where up to 2,000 low-income students would be offered tuition subsidies of up to $3,200 to attend a public, private, or religious school of their choice. The bill was vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton. In April 2001, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) proposed another limited voucher bill, but he withdrew it after hearing criticism from District officials and activist groups.

Lartigue’s analysis concludes that policy prescriptions for the DC public school system “must consider options beyond spending more money” and include competition for customers between public and private schools in order to spur improvements in quality. His proposals include vouchers of about $5,000 for students from low-income families; expanding the idea of the G.I. Bill to K-12; contracting out the management of failing schools; and tax credits for individuals sponsoring the education of a child.

Cafritz responded by saying she “would love to have a serious debate” but called Lartigue’s research “weak,” his proposals “silly bromides,” his ideas “cockamamie,” and his conclusions “slick lies in pursuit of a political agenda.” When challenged to identify just one example of a “slick lie” in the report, Cafritz pointed to its first sentence: “The public school system in the nation’s capital is failing.”

“That’s not true.” she asserted, saying that “any study of the real statistics” for the last two years would show the system “is turning around,” with “no corruption,” and with the crumbling infrastructure “halted” and “being fixed.” While admitting there had been “a tremendous deterioration of the system over the years,” she said “we are radically transforming the system.”

The District’s scores are improving, they’re improving faster, and they’re improving in a more systemic way, she told the Forum audience. “Give us a chance,” she asked.

Ford was unconvinced. Improvements in the District are always “next year, next year,” she said. She also was unimpressed by the District’s excitement about having more children now getting to the “Basic” level.

“When did ‘Basic’ become OK for our kids to get?” she asked.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

Cato Policy Analysis No. 461, “The Need for Educational Freedom in the Nation’s Capital,” by Casey J. Lartigue, Jr., issued on December 10, 2002, is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #11450.

Real Video coverage of the December 10, 2002 Policy Forum at the Cato Institute is available from Cato’s Web site at http://www.cato.org/realaudio/cpf-12-10-02.ram. Real Audio coverage is available at http://www.cato.org/realaudio/cpfa-12-10-02.ram.