When President George W. Bush signed a Congressional spending bill in January containing federal money to launch a school voucher program for 1,700 of Washington, DC’s neediest schoolchildren, his action gave advocates of private school choice a delicious victory. But the prospect loomed of more battles ahead, both to secure the DC base and to spread it across the nation.
In 1998, Congress enacted a similar voucher initiative allowing students stuck in poorly performing DC public schools to transfer to private schools, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it. By contrast, Bush worked hard for passage of DC vouchers as a logical extension of his signature No Child Left Behind Act.
Choice advocates agreed on the inspirational value of putting the first federally funded voucher program in DC, a majority-minority school system with some of the lowest test scores in the nation.
“What a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education,” remarked Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has fought for school choice in many courtrooms.
“This is a truly historic development,” said John Kirtley, president of Children First America, a corporate-led group that supports choice as a key element of school reform.
Kirtley said he was particularly pleased that vouchers were primarily “locally driven” and that bipartisan support came into play in Congress. DC Mayor Anthony Williams, City Councilman Kevin Chavous, and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz were key supporters, along with hundreds of DC parents.
In Congress, the endorsement of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, was significant. Feinstein had never endorsed a voucher proposal but said she was impressed by the level of educational need and local support for this proposal.
Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Virginia) introduced the voucher proposal.
Jeanne Allen, president of the nonpartisan Center for Education Reform, said approval of vouchers for DC “gives a tremendous boost to the cause of more choice for parents, and makes it something people across the country will want to know about.”
While they shared in the excitement, some leading proponents of choice did not believe the DC venture should be the exact model for follow-up voucher programs in other cities.
Noting the $14 million for DC vouchers was linked with $26 million in “new money” divided equally between the DC public school system and its charter schools, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman remarked, “these are obviously expensive vouchers–$40 million for 2,000 vouchers or $20,000 per voucher, of which at most $7,500 goes to the school accepting the voucher. The rest goes as compensation to the educational establishment for enrolling fewer students!”
Economist Friedman, founder of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, is considered the father of the voucher movement as a result of his seminal writings on the subject starting in the 1950s.
Officials of the Friedman Foundation added that, despite its imperfections, the DC voucher program sets a good example of bipartisan support for rescuing children from failing schools and could inspire others to adopt their own programs.
“Although he opposed vouchers,” noted Friedman President and CEO Gordon St. Angelo, “Rep. Danny Davis (D-Illinois) fully understood what the passage of the DC program would mean nationwide. As he said on the House floor, ‘It is DC today. It is Chicago tomorrow; St. Louis, New Orleans, Los Angeles next week. Then it is all over America.'”
Cato Institute analysts said the DC program is a “good start,” but one that is far from perfect. For one thing, noted David Salisbury, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, the fact that the voucher money doesn’t come out of the budget of the public school system means the loss of voucher students won’t be felt financially. Hence, “much of the incentive for the public schools to improve will be gone.”
Foes of vouchers vowed to fight to halt the program. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said they would back legislation to repeal DC vouchers and send the money to the public school system. Anti-choice organizations also were expected to file suit, as they almost always have following adoption of vouchers or education tax credits.
“Even after this vote,” asserted Kennedy, “don’t bank on vouchers coming to DC.”
Nevertheless, the vote cleared the way for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and DC Mayor Williams to confer on selecting an entity or entities to run the program and dispense vouchers, according to terms of the legislation. (See accompanying story for the basics of how the program will work.)
Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].