Commentary

Marion Barry’s Lost Generation

By Dan Lips
December 11, 2001
Twenty years ago, Washingtonians went to the polls and rejected school choice for District students. That 1981 ballot initiative would have provided tax credits to families that send their children to private schools. It lost by a margin of nine to one. At the time, Mayor Marion S. Barry, Jr. said that the vote sent a message that “nobody ought to mess with our public schools.”

Today, we are reaping the rewards of Barry’s victory: D.C. boasts just about the worst public school system in the nation. Despite increasing real per-student spending by nearly 50 percent since 1981, the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only one in four D.C. eighth graders had mastered basic math skills. Less than half could read. Despite per-student spending far higher than the national average, D.C. students rank near the bottom of the 50 states on any measure of student achievement.

During the last 20 years, since Mayor Barry’s victory, tens of thousands of students have passed through the D.C. public school system. We can only wonder how those students’ lives would be different if the tax credit had passed. The program would have given parents a tax credit worth up to $1,200 for education expenses such as private school tuition or tutoring services. It also would have provided corporations and other benefactors a credit for donations to provide scholarships for children to attend private school. This reform would have given more D.C. parents the ability to choose a private school, thus reducing the burden on D.C. public schools and increasing the amount of competition in the system.

While we can’t know with certainty what would have occurred if D.C. had moved to a market-based system, research on existing school choice programs suggests that competition improves the public school system, helping both the students who switch to private school and the students who remain in the public schools.

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 Ohio, New York, and Washington, D.C. scored significantly higher than their peers who remained in public schools. Overall, 10 independent studies have found that school choice programs benefit the students who participate.

But to consider only the benefits for the students who leave public schools is shortsighted. Introducing competition into a stagnant public school system would force all schools to improve as well. 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 get their acts together.

The District school system demonstrates the dangers of a system without competition. Consider the damning assessment delivered by school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. She recently noted that, “The absence of student achievement in the school system just boggled [my] mind,” adding that half of the District’s public school teachers were “incompetent.” Unfortunately, most District families can’t afford to leave the public school system and purchase a private school education after paying taxes to support the public schools.

The status quo has but one beneficiary: the public school monopoly. Failing public schools stay open and receive more funding every year. Given their captive clientele, D.C. public schools are about as motivated as a jockey in a one-horse race. It’s no wonder the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — the nation’s largest teachers unions — were part of a coalition that spent nearly $100,000 to defeat the 1981 tax credit ballot initiative. A wise investment, considering the D.C. public school budget was $800 million last year.

The tuition tax credit program would have helped all students in the District. Allowing parents to choose where their education dollars were spent would have attracted a diverse spectrum of entrepreneurs and innovators looking to compete for their business by offering superior services to the public schools. Failing, sub-par public schools would have been forced to improve or suffer the consequences as students transferred to better private alternatives. It’s staggering to consider how different the District would be if its school system was a model of successful innovative reform instead of a national joke.

Of course, it’s too late to reverse Marion Barry’s mistakes and do right by the generation of children who have languished in D.C.’s public schools. But if the Bush administration is serious about leaving no child behind in our failing public school system, it should urge school choice reformers and advocates on both sides of the aisle to deliver school choice to the students in the nation’s capital. No one should be willing to sacrifice the potential of the next generation to the status quo.

Dan Lips is an education researcher at the Cato Institute.