Commentary

D.C. School Choice: Just Getting Started

This article also appeared on National Review Online

“D.C. School Voucher Applications Fall Short,” read the front page headline in the June 11 Washington Post. According to the article, only 1,200 low-income children would be provided with vouchers through the fledgling D.C. Scholarship Program this fall, 400 fewer than the approximately 1,600 that potentially could have received funds. Reactions to the shortfall, like that of D.C. council member and choice opponent Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4), were sadly predictable: “It very clearly says there is not a lot of support for vouchers,” said Fenty. “Where is the rush? Where is the onslaught of people who were supposed to come out and take part in this process?”

Considering the minute timeframe the Washington Scholarship Fund had to launch this brand new program — Congress didn’t authorize it until late January and the application deadline for parents was May 17—having reached 75 percent of capacity is actually impressive. But that just begins to tell the story. Buried in the Post’s article were clear signs that choice is, in fact, popular with many parents. For instance, the story noted that the number of eligible students who applied for scholarships actually exceeded the 1,600 maximum. Moreover, while the number of applicants for kindergarten through fifth grade slots fell short of capacity, the number for grades six through twelve exceeded it. And one important statistic didn’t make the article: According to WSF President Sally Sachar, the total number of scholarship applications (both eligible and ineligible) was actually 2,610. Suddenly, demand for choice looks much greater.

Of course, choice opponents aren’t really worried that too few parents will take vouchers. If parents don’t take advantage of choice options, after all, the defenders of the status quo win hands-down; choice has been offered and nobody wants it. No, what opponents fear is that too many parents will use choice programs, even programs laboring under constant threat of eradication, hobbled by enrollment caps, and funded at levels that are dwarfed by public schools. They know what history has shown them: the longer choice programs exist, the more popular they become. They know history, and don’t want it to repeat in D.C.

Consider the nation’s oldest voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). In 1990 the MPCP started with only 341 out of approximately 1,000 slots having been filled, a much less auspicious start than in D.C. But the program was only allowed to serve 1 percent of Milwaukee Public School’s (MPS) students, and the maximum voucher was pegged at just over 40 percent of MPS’s $6,064 per-pupil expenditure. Since 1990, the MPCP has remained handicapped: Among other things, the maximum value of a voucher has never exceeded 60 percent of MPS’s per-pupil spending; the program was the subject of an on-going legal battle from 1995 to 1998; and, in 2001, the Wisconsin State Senate passed legislation that, had it become law, would have reduced the maximum voucher by 50 percent and frozen enrollment. Yet somehow, despite all the reasons for parents to steer clear of it, today the MPCP serves over 13,200 students, nearly 39 times its enrollment in 1990.

Cleveland’s choice program has shown similar enduring appeal. Between 1996 and 2004 the program’s enrollment grew from 1,994 to 5,098 students, despite the fact that until 2003 the maximum scholarship was an anemic $2,250 (and was raised to only $2,700 in 2003) and per-pupil spending in Cleveland’s public schools grew from $7,970 to $10,889. And enrollment didn’t just increase after the U.S. Supreme Court found Cleveland’s program constitutional in 2002. It was growing even while the program’s existence was under threat.

Naturally, it will always be aggravating to hear opponents of educational freedom categorize as a failure anything less than perfection in school choice programs. But experience has shown that no matter how embattled or handicapped choice may be, it quickly becomes irresistible to parents — exactly what the opponents of D.C. school choice are trying to avoid. Knowing that, the rhetorical assault against the D.C. Scholarship Program is probably just beginning.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.