Commentary

Mayor Williams Wants School Vouchers for D.C.

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
May 30, 2003

In one corner of the debate on the future of education in the nation’s capital: D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a graduate of Antioch College, Yale Law School, and recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees. In the other corner: Mayor Anthony Williams, a graduate of Yale University, Harvard Law School, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. They are both respected professionals, black, born before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and respected leaders in the District of Columbia who in the last week have traded barbs over school choice.

Williams and Norton have opposed school choice for as long as they have spoken on the record about it. That’s why the mayor sent shockwaves through the city when he reversed himself, announcing that he could support a congressionally designed school voucher program. Earlier this year, Williams’ spokesman Tony Bullock said Williams “does not support public funds for vouchers in private schools.”

The reversal was another blow to Norton, who was already reeling from the defection of School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz to the voucher side. Cafritz, whose background and accomplishments mirror those of Williams and Norton, shocked the D.C. establishment with a Washington Post op-ed in late March expressing her conditional willingness to try vouchers. Kevin Chavous, head of the City Council’s education committee and a child of Brown, is now said to be “reconsidering” his position on vouchers.

The fallout from the reversals? One, the connection of home rule to education has been disconnected in the immediate future. Through her single-minded determination, Norton has kept local leaders in step on the issue of home rule for more than a decade. Now that local leaders have said they are willing to work with the White House on vouchers, it will be tougher for her to play the “us versus them” game. She accused Williams of “selling out” home rule and making matters more difficult for her when she talks with federal officials.

Two, the significance of the school board president and mayor of a large urban area coming out in support of vouchers will make it more difficult for leaders of urban areas around the country to declare vouchers dead on arrival.

Three, the Supreme Court’s Zelman decision has undercut much of the argument against school choice being extended to private schools. Opponents of school choice are running out of excuses. They’re finding it more difficult to keep their colleagues from “selling out,” and losing the battle against the tide of history.

Norton will do her best to turn back the tide, just as some people tried to block the schoolhouse doors of white public schools to blacks when she was attending D.C’s famed Dunbar High School in the 1950s. She is already being encouraged to lead an effort to recall Williams from office, which would fail just as a 2000 petition to recall Williams failed. With more city leaders starting to support vouchers, will there also be attempts to recall the school board president, the school board members reconsidering their positions on choice, as well as city council members who may come out in favor of vouchers?

Instead of a “recall” campaign, Eleanor Holmes Norton should prove that she really believes that D.C. residents don’t support choice: Start a “tear up your voucher” campaign. If D.C. residents don’t support vouchers, then they can prove it by refusing to use vouchers. But with the troubled school system, and increasingly vocal parents demanding more options, her fear may be that D.C. residents who attend D.C.’s worst schools will not want to wait for the public school system to improve the schools.

Mayor Williams and School Board President Cafritz have gone out on a limb by publicly reversing themselves. To their credit, and to the benefit of the children and families of D.C., the children in the nation’s capital have a chance at real choice — real freedom — in getting a better education. Their obstacles now will be those willing to stand in the schoolhouse door.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr. is an analyst with the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.