Commentary

Educational Freedom Day in D.C.: A Trial Run

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
August 1, 2003

Numerous polls have attempted to show what Washington, D.C. residents think about school vouchers. A 1998 poll by The Washington Post and a 2002 National School Boards Association poll have offered conflicting views of how D.C. residents view vouchers. There is a better way than depending on what pollsters find: Give “practice vouchers” to D.C. parents and see how many attempt to use them.

This would be timely as Congress is now considering offering vouchers to 2,000 D.C. residents, and a trial day would give both sides — voucher supporters and opponents — a sneak preview of the demand for school choice. Parents across the city could be mailed vouchers by school choice advocates, such as D.C. Parents for School choice, among others, which they could use for a day to visit the private schools of their choice. Parents could pick up forms, interview with administrators or teachers, and see the schools from the inside. To increase awareness, a volunteer team of school choice advocates should be recruited to lead the effort by walking door to door in the low-income areas (Wards 5,6,7, and 8) to spread word about the vouchers.

A trial run would have risks for both supporters and opponents of vouchers. Lawyers are taught never to ask clients a question they don’t already know the answer to. If scores of parents don’t show up, then opponents would be able to argue that the city isn’t interested in vouchers. A low turnout is possible because D.C. parents who have seen previous plans scuttled may not believe that vouchers will ever become an option for them. And if more than 2,000 parents show up, but they later are not selected one of the 2,000 vouchers that Congress is planning to budget money for, then many of those parents might be upset if they don’t receive a voucher.

It would also be risky for opponents. If parents show up in massive numbers, then the National School Boards Association poll would be as meaningless as I believe it is (I called the organization asking for demographic data, but was told that they would withhold it for “strategic” reasons). If only 10 percent of the parents with children in public and charter schools showed up, that would still be about 8,000 parents demonstrating real interest in choice. Opponents could ask parents to mail their vouchers back to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton or other voucher opponents to demonstrate their distaste with vouchers.

There would be disputes over exactly how many parents showed up — there are always disputes about crowd counts in the District — and whether some parents had visited one school more than another. Despite the concerns on both sides about whether or not a practice voucher day harms their position, a day focused on parents visiting schools can’t be such a bad thing. Other cities and states could do the same thing, following D.C.’s lead. Such a step could even put pressure on public schools to open their doors to students across the city, instead of telling parents to be satisfied with charter schools and “out-of-boundary” applications for a handful of spots.

This type of mock trial isn’t unprecedented. According to Juan Williams in Eyes on the Prize, several civil rights organizations decided to run a mock election in Mississippi in 1962. The “Freedom Party” candidates, with a black president and white lieutenant governor, challenged the Democratic and Republican hopefuls in the mock election. Sixty white students from Yale and Stanford universities were brought in for two weeks of campaigning. Despite many arrests and beatings, the young northerners walked door to door in black neighborhoods, spreading word of the practice election. One of the organizers said: “What we have discovered is that the people who run Mississippi today can only do so by force. They cannot allow free elections in Mississippi, because if they did, they wouldn’t run Mississippi.” Williams writes that on the day of the mock election, 93,000 people cast their “votes,” with the Freedom Party candidates winning.

It is clear that just as Mississippi couldn’t allow free elections, opponents of choice in D.C. today cannot allow educational freedom for parents. Holding an educational freedom day could reveal just how deeply parents do or don’t want school choice.

Casey Lartigue Jr. is an education policy analyst with the Cato Institute.