Commentary

Education Means Emancipation

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
September 3, 2003

Public school advocates who oppose offering vouchers to low-income D.C. students are planning a news conference for today, Sept. 3. D.C. residents should do exactly what former slave Frederick Douglass did on this day 165 years ago, when faced with people telling him how to live his life: Run!

Fed up with the abuse from his slave owners, tired of the lame defenses of slavery offered by both whites and slaves, and eager to become his own man, Douglass snuck off, to claim what rightfully was his: Freedom over himself. As Douglass explained in a letter to his former slave master on the 10th anniversary of his escape, “In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner.”

If voucher opponents, led by D.C. Delegate Norton, remain true to form, they will denounce efforts to increase choice among families, making three main points. One, as Norton has said, parents supposedly already have choice because of charter schools. Norton, however, is not prepared to test that level of support by allowing D.C. parents to leave. The ultimate test for any school, business, or organization is: Do the people choose to stay or leave?

Voucher opponents fear the test of allowing citizens to choose for themselves if they want to remain in D.C. public schools. When people complain that the schools will be “robbed” by children being able to go to private schools, what they are saying is that, given a choice, parents would prefer that their children be educated elsewhere and that they should be forced to remain where they are. As much as slave owners bragged that slaves enjoyed their lives, the “man-stealers” were not willing to test that devotion by giving them the choice to leave.

The second point Ms. Norton will probably make today is that D.C. parents are opposed to vouchers. She often refers to polls. Instead of relying on polls, why not allow D.C. parents to decide for themselves? In a news release on her Web site, Ms. Norton says, “District residents themselves resolutely defeated a voucher referendum by a huge margin—89.1% to 10.8%.” She is partly correct. D.C. residents did vote down a referendum proposing tax credits in 1981. But there has not been a vote on vouchers. It has been 22 years since tuition tax credits were voted on. There is not a single child who is in the traditional public schools today now who was even alive then. After two decades of wide-scale education failure, a question to ask D.C. parents is: Had enough?

A third point Norton is likely to repeat: The school system will lose $25 million, not just $13 million, as a result of 2,000 children being able to leave the system. First of all, DCPS and charter schools will be receiving $13 million in new funding from the federal government. In 2002, according to the superintendent’s annual report on D.C. schools, more than $1 billion, including capital improvement funds, was spent on the D.C. public school system. Last year $31 million in salaries was paid out to people who should not have even been on the D.C. public school payroll. The $13 million going to the voucher program would be less than the $17 million Ms. Norton brags about acquiring for D.C. charter schools last year.

Arguments over how much the public school system would lose make for interesting debate. But the main point is that parents wouldn’t lose those education dollars. They would still be able to use them, and have the opportunity to do so at the school of their choice. Does Ms. Norton believe that parents have an obligation to remain in schools that don’t work for their children, for the sake of saving some money for the public school budget? I’m reminded of Douglass’s outrage at slaveholders who had expected compensation for the “loss” of their slaves. The concern should be over how much education the children are getting, not about how much the public school system gets. Parents who choose to run would be taking nothing but that which rightfully belonged to them: the right to choose where their children get educated.

Regardless of what Norton says today at her press conference, the point made by Frederick Douglass still holds: Don’t settle for second best. Don’t settle for second-class treatment. “Without struggle, there is no progress,” he said. It’s time for D.C. parents to make it clear that they will no longer settle for second-class schools.

Casey Lartigue, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute, will deliver the keynote address to the annual conference of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Anacostia, D.C., on September 20.