It’s Time for Change in D.C.’s Schools

By Dan Lips
February 11, 2002

If the Washington, D.C. public school system were a publicly traded company, school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s recent comments would warrant a SEC investigation. Cafritz has called on Congress and the District government to increase spending on the 70,000 child school district by 50 percent, from $641 to $979 million. Imagine if the CEO of Enron had the same audacity — calling on shareholders to ignore scandalous mismanagement and plow more money into the failing company.

Cafritz’s request is reckless because there’s little proof that additional spending will improve D.C. schools. More money is not the answer. If it were, surely we’d see results by now. The District spends more per pupil than almost any state in the nation, yet its students perform far below the national average on every measure of student achievement. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress found that one out of four D.C. eighth graders had basic math skills. Less than half could read.

In the past, Cafritz has offered candid assessments of the District’s abysmal performance. When she took office she noted that, “The absence of student achievement in the school system just boggled [my] mind,” adding that half the District’s public school teachers were “incompetent.”

Well, throwing good money after bad won’t make D.C. schools more competent. It’s time for fundamental change. Instead of granting Cafritz’s request for more funding, Congress should enact a new program that gives parents and taxpayers — not education bureaucrats — more control over education.

In short, what the District needs is a scholarship tax credit program. Here ‘s how it works: Individuals and corporations receive a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit for contributions they make to private scholarship funds. Non-profit organizations manage the funds and then distribute scholarships to needy children.

The seemingly simple plan can have dramatic results, as scholarship programs in both Arizona and Pennsylvania have demonstrated. Last year, Arizona’s $500 scholarship tax credit for individuals raised enough money to fund 15,000 scholarships. In Pennsylvania, more than 600 businesses raised $15 million dollars for scholarships last fall. Imagine if District taxpayers raised just $50 million for scholarships. That would be enough to give 10,000 students a scholarship worth $5000 each. If most of those scholarships went to kids in public schools that would help nearly one out of seven public school students escape the failing system.

For those fortunate students, the program might mean the difference between a lifetime of learning and one of crippling illiteracy. The facts show that private school scholarship programs are effective. For example, a study conducted by researchers from Harvard and Georgetown Universities and the University of Wisconsin released last year found that African-American students receiving private scholarships in Washington, D.C. scored significantly higher on standardized tests than their peers who remained in public school. Overall, 10 independent studies have confirmed that scholarship programs benefit the students who participate.

So what about the six-out-of-seven kids who are left in public schools? Over the long-term, all students would benefit from increased competition in the school system. In other words, having to compete for students will force stagnant public schools to clean up their acts. Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby has found that in metropolitan areas with even limited competition, choice forces schools to provide better outcomes at a lower cost. It makes sense: Like any business, the threat of losing customers encourages even the worst schools to try to do better.

Allowing parents to choose where their education dollars are spent would attract a diverse spectrum of entrepreneurs and innovators seeking to provide superior educational services to both students and parents. Bad schools will improve or suffer the consequences. It’s staggering to consider how different District students’ lives would be if the school system were a model of innovation rather than a national disgrace.

President Cafritz should welcome a scholarship tax credit program. Moving thousands of students out of the public school system would dramatically improve the teacher-student ratio in D.C. classrooms, a long sought priority of the education establishment. Since politicians would be slow to reduce funding for public schools, per-student spending would actually rise over the short term when students transfer. It’s difficult to imagine why anyone, especially President Cafritz, would oppose a scholarship program that gives needy children a shot at a better education while at the same time eases the burden on public schools.

D.C. parents and taxpayers alike should balk at the education bureaucracy’s call for more money spent on more of the same. It’s time to stop making excuses and demand improvement from our school system. District children deserve better.

Dan Lips is an education researcher at the Cato Institute.