Commentary

School Choice Mood Swings

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on March 15, 2003.

At the beginning of the 1993-94 school year, D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous enrolled his 9-year-old son in Holy Trinity, a Jesuit-run parish school.

Mr. Chavous explained to The Washington Times that his son “needed extra attention” as a result of his “starting to act up” in public school. The paper reported Mr. Chavous was unapologetic about the move because he saw a change for the better almost immediately: “You have to do what is best for your children,” Mr. Chavous said.

There aren’t many people who would disagree with that decision. As a wealthy parent (in 1993, he was already earning nearly $150,000 a year as a lawyer), Mr. Chavous had the means to pay for private schooling. Too bad he and other D.C. Council members — who oppose school choice for their less well-to-do neighbors — don’t preach what they practice.

A survey I recently conducted of D.C. City Council members (three of the 13 members did not respond) shows many send their children to private schools. Only Carol Schwartz has children who have graduated from D.C. public schools. Four (Mr. Chavous, Harold Brazil, Vincent Orange and Kathleen Patterson) currently have children either in private school or who have graduated from private school. Two members (Adrian Fenty and Phil Mendelson) have toddlers; two do not have children (Jim Graham and David Catania); and three did not respond to my calls and e-mails (Linda Cropp, Jack Evans, Sharon Ambrose). One council member (Sandy Allen) never directly said whether her children went to D.C. public schools, but she made it clear they hadn’t gone to private school.

At the same time, these “public” officials oppose school choice for the District, which would provide parents with the means to send their children to those same private schools — or wherever they want to see their kids educated. Either way, the children would not be stuck in D.C.-designated educational ghettos.

Over the next few months, we can expect the members of the City Council to denounce efforts to improve educational choices between charter and public schools. D.C. Council Member Fenty, who attended the public schools until he enrolled in a Catholic school at the beginning of the ninth grade, is expected to introduce a resolution condemning vouchers.

It isn’t a new phenomenon for D.C.’s political and educational leaders to fiercely defend the public school system while sending their own children to private schools. According to a 1977 U.S.News & World Report article, “Rep. Walter Fauntroy, a black Democrat who is the District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate in Congress, has a child in private school. So does Sterling Tucker, black chairman of the D.C. City Council.”

District officials who avoid the local public schools have counterparts in Congress. For instance, Heritage Foundation analyst Jennifer Garrett found that 47 percent of House members and 51 percent of senators with school-age children sent them to private schools in 2001. Thirty-five percent of Congressional Black Caucus members and 33 percent of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus members sent their children to private school in 2001. Most of their members remain opposed to plans to afford a choice of schools outside the public school system.

In a commentary published last summer, Mr. Chavous wrote: “After overseeing reform efforts in the D.C. Public Schools, I am convinced that our traditional school system is capable of reform — but incapable of reforming itself. Effective reform has to be radical in nature.” Mr. Chavous personally engaged in school choice a decade ago. It is time for lower-income parents to have options beyond charters and traditional public schools.

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