D.C. Voucher Proposal Still Alive in Congress

Published December 1, 1997

On November 9, the U.S. Senate approved by voice vote a bill to provide scholarships for low-income children in Washington, D.C. The bill now goes to the House, which earlier this year approved the proposal when it came as part of the D.C. Appropriations bill.

While attached to the District’s appropriation, the $7 million Republican plan to give 2,000 D.C. students up to $3,200 a year towards private school tuition attracted the support of a majority of Senators. Nevertheless, the GOP could not muster the 60 votes needed to defeat a threatened filibuster by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts).

Democrats Support School Choice

Four Senate Democrats voted for the D.C. voucher bill on September 30: Senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Lieberman, who sponsored the bill, had this to say before the vote:

“This is not a choice between public schools and private, parochial schools. That is a false choice. You can support this amendment and support the public schools in the District. . . . This is a lifeline for 2,000 children who are trapped in a school system where none of us would let our kids be . . .”

“Choice supporters see that 85 percent of the families living in Ward 3, the wealthiest in this city, send their children to private schools. Those ministers and children who came to see us from the poorest section of the city asked us: Is it fair, given this indictment of the District of Columbia public schools by the wealthier families and the wealthier neighborhoods, for the Congress to force the poor and disenfranchised to attend schools that we would not ourselves?”

Kennedy Remark Outrages Black Choice Advocates

Several prominent African-Americans are demanding that Senator Kennedy retract and apologize for the “offensive, bigoted comments” he made on the floor of the Senate on September 30, when he successfully rallied Democratic opposition to a cloture vote on his threatened filibuster of the Washington, D.C. Scholarship Act.

“Republicans in Congress should stop acting like plantation masters and start treating the people of D.C. with the respect they deserve,” said Kennedy, arguing that vouchers would weaken public schools.

Appalled by Kennedy’s remarks were Star Parker, president of the Coalition on Urban Affairs and Education; Jacqueline Jay Cissell, director of Families for Real Choice in Education; Rev. Ray Bryant, director of Putting Children First, Texas, and pastor of St. Paul AME Church; and Alveda Celeste King, founder and chairman of King for America, Inc.

“As urban leaders and parents having to fight on the front lines for our children, whether in the streets or in the schools, your statements relegate an important debate to the sewer of partisan politics,” they wrote in a letter to Kennedy. “Our goal in supporting school choice is not to destroy public schools,” they added, “but to provide choice for quality education so that children can better themselves and rise above the poverty around them.”

Accusing choice opponents of condemning minority children to “crime-ridden, drug-infested, and violence-filled institutions,” the black leaders pointed out that the D.C. scholarship bill would have provided low-income minority parents with the same choices that Kennedy and his parents had exercised in sending their children to private schools.

In a letter asking President Bill Clinton to condemn and repudiate Kennedy’s remarks, the black leaders wrote, “Sen. Kennedy may have singled out Republicans but his statements are a bigoted cheap shot against all supporters of school choice.”

Public vs. Private Schools in D.C.

A new analysis of the Washington, DC, public schools portrays a system desperately in need of sweeping reform but unlikely to see reform soon.

The District’s private schools, by contrast, offer an inexpensive, effective education. The study’s authors recommend that, until the public schools are brought up to par, the District’s children should be allowed to attend a public, private, or parochial school of their parents’ choice.

Average per-pupil spending by the District’s public schools was about $7,600 in 1996, higher than the national average for nearly all big cities. Yet 12 percent of D.C. public school classrooms did not have textbooks at the beginning of the 1996-97 school year, and 20 percent did not have adequate supplies. The District does appear to have plenty of administrators: It has one for every 16 teachers. The national average is one administrator for every 42 teachers.

Newspapers for Choice

Support for the Washington, D.C. voucher proposal is growing, even among the media outside the city.

“The D.C. public schools are an abysmal failure, and most families there lack the financial resources to pay private school tuition,” editorialized the Florida Times-Union on September 20. “Soon, however, poor children may have as much opportunity as [Chelsea Clinton] did.”

“The demand for better schools unquestionably exists; it’s just frustrated by the current indefensible monopoly. Give parents choice; foster competition; and watch the results,” demanded the Columbus Dispatch in a September 17 editorial.

On September 21, the Chattanooga Free Press agreed. “It is fine that members of Congress have the status and income sufficient to allow them to choose where their children go to school. . . . If parents of every school-age child were given a ‘voucher’ worth one child’s equal share of school money, with the right to choose among public, private or church schools, we believe educational achievement would blossom spectacularly.”

“Isn’t it time for high-quality education to be available to all children,” asked the Orlando Sentinel in an October 1 editorial, “through competition in selection of schools of parents’ choice? Not available just to the wealthy–especially well-paid and hypocritical Washington politicians.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].