Commentary

Giving D.C. Kids the Best Education Available

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
This article was published in National Review Online, Oct. 7, 2003.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, school-board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and D.C. Council education chair Kevin Chavous have embraced a voucher program for the city because, they say, they want to offer “every available tool” for local youngsters. Opponents counter that parents already have plenty of options. “With its 42 charter schools, 15 transformation schools, and out-of-neighborhood attendance, the city already has proven alternatives to the public-school system,” says D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

So, how prevalent, really, is choice in the district and how much more choice would a voucher program add? A review of the options currently offered by the city reveals two things: (1) the amount of choice is limited to low-performing schools that parents want to escape and that, (2) a voucher program would vastly increase the educational options available to students.

For instance, does the “out-of-boundary” program provide a helpful alternative for parents looking for choice? The answer depends upon the source. The public-school system in March reported receiving more than 6,000 applications for 5,254 out-of-boundary placements. But parents tell me it’s a “fake choice.” Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, says, “The out-of-boundary placement program is a joke. Parents who have been waiting for out-of-boundary placements for years never get in.” Congressional testimony by Jefferson Junior High School PTA President Jackie Pinckney-Hackett last May backs up that claim.

Out-of-boundary enrollment applicants are considered only if a school has space after accepting all of its in-boundary students. Parents are not allowed to apply to more than three out of 146 schools in D.C. for each child. Ms. Pinckney-Hackett notes that Woodrow Wilson senior high school, considered one of the top schools in the District, received 520 applications. It had zero spaces available. Deal Junior High, a feeder school for Wilson, had 532 applications, but only ten openings.

At the same time, D.C. parents know which schools are less desirable and shun them whenever possible. Anacostia Senior High School (SHS) had 80 spaces available, but only seven applicants. Ballou SHS had 220 available spaces, but only three applicants. In 2002, fewer than 800 of the 7,000 children who applied for out-of-boundary spots were granted permission, mainly because many of the available slots are in low-performing schools.

What about spaces available in transformation schools, the low performing schools that have been targeted with extra resources? According to the D.C. public-schools website, 12 of the 15 transformation schools listed on the site have 453 seats available for out-of-boundary transfers. Of those 12 schools targeted for improvement, five (Stanton, Turner, Walker-Jones, and Wilkinson elementary schools and Evans Middle School) had no out-of-boundary spaces available. More than 25 percent of the available transformation school spaces are at Kramer Middle School, which had 120 available spaces, but only four applicants.

The city’s charter schools provide parents with a choice. But an estimated 14,000 children are now enrolled in those institutions and parents often complain about long waiting lines. “Despite often inadequate or crowded facilities,” Del. Norton has said, “these schools have long waiting lists because of their small class sizes and tight curriculums.” So, instead of seeing the long waiting list as a reason to expand choice, opponents of the voucher program say the waiting list is a reason to limit choice. Huh?

It is ironic that charter schools, now cited as an adequate option, just a few years ago were attacked with language similar to that used against vouchers today. “They are taking away from the basic premise of education to allow public funds to go to private schools,” Board of Education President Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) said in 1995 as she lobbied against the charter-school proposal. Similar remarks were made by school-board member Jay Silberman (At Large), former D.C. council member Harry Thomas Sr. (D., Ward 5), and Barbara Bullock, the former president of the Washington Teachers’ Union who was accused by the FBI earlier this year of embezzling millions from the union.

Once portrayed as a Trojan Horse that could destroy public schools, charters are now embraced. A decade from now, the same may be said about vouchers’ programs.

While charters, transformation schools, and the out-of-boundary program provide alternatives, the reality is that many parents don’t think they have real choices.

A voucher program would add more educational choice to supplement those already offered. Surveys conducted this summer by the Washington Scholarship Fund and the Cato Institute reveal that at least 1,800 seats are immediately available in D.C. private schools, and that private schools in the city could expand to accommodate as many as 2,900 more students. Williams, Cafritz, and Chavous say they want to use every available resource in the city, including 84 private schools. Those available seats in private schools would not be a panacea for the troubled system, but private schools could offer extra learning opportunities now restricted by hide-bound bureaucrats and politicians.

Casey Lartigue is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.