DC Vouchers Urged to End ‘the New Segregation’

Published April 1, 2001

Shortly after President George W. Bush presented his education reform plan, which included a limited provision for converting federal Title I aid to $1,500 vouchers when schools chronically fail, school choice supporters came to Washington from across the nation to argue the case for even bolder uses of parental choice–including universal tax credits as well as vouchers.

A February 7 conference at the National Press Club released a new book–An Education Agenda: Let Parents Choose Their Children’s School–published jointly by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) and Children First America (CFA). The 174-page book presents essays by 20 of the nation’s leading school choice authorities, who explore what policies are working and what can be done to multiply the successes. Several of the authors spoke at the conference.

Former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont, NCPA’s policy chairman, opened the conference by noting American public education continues under the control of a Soviet-style system that “tells us where to go to school, who will be our teachers, and what the curriculum will be” . . . a system that plainly doesn’t work. “We know what does work: markets, city parochial schools, American higher education, and the GI Bill,” du Pont added.

“America is the envy of the world because of its dynamic market economy,” du Pont contended. “Markets work for schools, too–in East Harlem, Milwaukee, Minnesota, and Arizona. They can work everywhere.”

DC Vouchers Urged

Several speakers urged congressional revival of the DC Student Scholarship Opportunity Act, a 1998 bill that would have provided $3,200 vouchers to enable Washington, DC’s neediest children to leave failing public schools in favor of safe, productive private or parochial ones. The need for the vouchers was underscored by perhaps the most moving testimony of the day, which came from Virginia Walden, a single parent in DC.

“I am not someone who ever imagined myself standing up in front of a room like this being an advocate for anything other than the three children living in my house,” Walden said. “But I had one child who was failing in a public school, and he was in trouble with the police, and I knew I had to do something.”

Walden told of her anguish in 1997 at coming home and finding her tenth grade son William being grilled by the police. She was terrified she was about to “lose him to the streets.” At the school to which he was assigned, Roosevelt High, an astounding 82 percent of students score below basic in math, and 55 percent score that poorly in reading.

Several generous friends scraped together enough money to enable William to enroll at Archbishop Carroll High School, and his life turned around. He graduated from high school and is now attending college.

Now, as executive director of DC Parents for School Choice, Virginia Walden is determined that other needy parents in the District should be able to secure the means to rescue their children. She says it is wrong to assume needy parents cannot exercise choice responsibly.

“We know that the poorest of families care the most,” she said, “because they know their options are the least.”

Walden would like a bipartisan coalition to form on behalf of a voucher program for DC’s poorest children, just as happened in 1998, when Democratic lawmakers Joseph Lieberman and Floyd Flake joined Republicans Dick Armey and Dan Coats in sponsoring the DC voucher bill. President Clinton vetoed the measure, though the Clintons sent their own daughter to an exclusive DC private school. At the time, polls showed 65 percent of black DC residents with incomes under $50,000 a year favored the vouchers.

Ending the New Segregation

In her contribution to An Education Agenda, Walden put Clinton’s veto in the context of another Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, trying to use the National Guard to thwart desegregation in 1957.

“The new segregation is every bit as cruel as the old,” Walden wrote. “It keeps many low-income students trapped in inner-city schools with long histories of academic failure.”

Harvard government professor Paul E. Peterson, the lead researcher for several school choice studies, agreed that the District of Columbia should be turned into a voucher showcase for the nation.

Peterson presented evidence from randomized field trials of private voucher programs (one of them in DC) showing that black students empowered to attend private schools had closed one-third of the black/white achievement gap in just two years, thereby creating a reasonable presumption that the gap could be eliminated altogether over 12 years of school. Disruptive conduct drops sharply, and parental satisfaction soars, when families can choose their children’s schools.

In addition to using compensatory education aid to give parents in failing schools the option of enrolling their children elsewhere, the federal government ought to establish a pilot voucher program that would give all children in the nation’s capital a free choice of school, Peterson argued. Such a venture would generate information for the whole nation on the impact of vouchers, particularly for black children.

There is a strong presumption that President Bush would sign such a bill, given his support for Title I vouchers, even though he and other administration officials avoid using that term.

Interest in Tax Credits

The conferees also were brimming with optimism about the usefulness of tax credits, particularly as a tool to build K-12 scholarship funds for impoverished families.

The most frequently mentioned model was the tuition tax credit from Arizona, a state that has much to teach the nation as a pioneer in education reform. With a law hospitable to reform, more than 450 public charter schools now serve Arizona students, and the state long has allowed open enrollment in all its government schools.

As Arizona’s chief education officer Lisa Graham Keegan and U.S. Senator Jon Kyl noted, providing taxpayers dollar-for-dollar tax credits for voluntary donations to organizations awarding scholarships to needy K-12 students is beginning to greatly expand educational opportunity. The tuition credit was enacted in 1997, and passed judicial muster in 1999. The number of taxpayers choosing to donate skyrocketed 650 percent from 1998 to 1999. An estimated $20 million worth of scholarships will be distributed in Arizona this year.

Kyl announced he will introduce legislation to provide for a federal tax credit based on the Arizona model.

Virtues of Private Schools

The most remarkable school choice story is about Catholic schools, observed New York University research professor Joseph P. Viteritti, author of the Brookings Institution book Choosing Equality. Several scientific studies have confirmed that poor and minority children who attend Catholic high schools do much better than their peers who remain in government schools. They graduate and go on to college at a much higher rate.

“There is no justifiable reason,” Viteritti asserts, “to consign poor children to failing public schools when the many nonpublic institutions in urban communities are capable of meeting their educational needs.”

Robert B. Aguirre told of growing up in a barrio of San Antonio in the 1950s and attending a private school–a rarity in his neighborhood–only because his parents worked hard to provide him a better education than what was routinely available to Hispanic children in assigned government schools. By 1984, Aguirre headed his own company in San Antonio with over 1,000 employees, and was appalled to find it increasingly difficult to find employees who could read and write.

As a CFA board member, Aguirre now oversees the Horizon voucher program that since 1998 has offered private vouchers to provide school choice to every one of the 14,180 pupils in the Edgewood School District of San Antonio, part of the barrio in which he lived the first 21 years of his life.

Aguirre strongly disputes what he terms the “lies, the myths, and the fears” most commonly voiced by enemies of school choice. For instance, there’s the hue and cry that school choice will bankrupt public schools. To the contrary, Aguirre noted, Edgewood lost 8.4 percent of its students when Horizon started, but its funding per student actually increased 5.7 percent.

Choice, noted Aguirre, is not about public versus private schools: “It’s about empowering parents and giving them the opportunity to be reengaged in their child’s education by having choices.”

Vintage Programs, Promising Developments

Although school choice has expanded dramatically over the past decade, not all programs are of recent vintage. Robert Enlow, vice president of programs and public relations for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, told of the “undiscovered gems” of Maine and Vermont. Since the late 1700s in Maine’s case and 1869 in Vermont’s, both states have allowed public money to be used to pay private tuition when students live in an area that, for whatever reason, decides not to build government schools.

The Institute for Justice’s Clint Bolick, a leading litigator for choice, said one of the most encouraging developments of the past year has been the broadening of support for choice. He noted endorsements from publications like The Washington Post, USA Today, and The New Republic, and from political liberals like former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information . . .

An Education Agenda: Let Parents Choose Their Children’s School is available from the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis at www.ncpa.org or 972/386-6272. The book includes a reprint of a 1995 article by Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, who has provided the intellectual underpinning for the voucher movement.