D.C. Should Create Its Own School Voucher Program

May 29, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the DC Examiner on May 29, 2009.

Thousands rallied in DC earlier this month to save a federal program that helps low‐​income families afford private schooling. On the same day, President Obama signaled that he opposes school vouchers, but will seek funding so that students already attending private schools may continue to do so through the end of high school. When they’ve graduated, the voucher program would die. That isn’t good enough.

The voucher students have little brothers and sisters. They have neighbors and friends. Under the president’s proposal, none of those children would ever enjoy the chances that voucher recipients like Mercedes Campbell have had.

In an interview with ReasonTV, Mercedes said the opportunity to attend a private school has transformed her. “It’s different, now that I go to Visitation.… It’s like a whole new world.”

Unless something is done, most poor kids in DC will never glimpse that world, let alone live in it. House Minority Leader John Boehner, of Ohio, has proposed a bill to reauthorize the voucher program, but it faces a stiff headwind as long as Democrats in Congress defer to teacher union opposition.

But there is another option: The District of Columbia can create its own scholarship program.

Can DC afford it? Average tuition at voucher‐​accepting schools is about $6,600, according to a federal study released last month. By contrast, the city is currently spending about $1.3 billion on k‐​12 education, for fewer than 49,000 students.

That works out to well over $26,000 per pupil — comparable to tuition at the prestigious Sidwell Friends school to which the president sends his own daughters, Sasha and Malia. So DC could easily offer a voucher even larger than the one currently provided by the federal government.

Is it politically viable? Perhaps. Though Democrats in Congress are almost universally opposed to school choice programs, the same is not true at the state and local levels. Speakers at the rally to save the voucher program included DC councilman Marion Barry, former mayor Anthony Williams (who was instrumental in creating the federal program), former councilman Kevin Chavous, and civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis.

And just two weeks ago, the Florida legislature passed a bill strengthening that state’s private school choice tax credit program, with the support of nearly half the Democratic caucus in the house, and two thirds of African American Democrats. The biggest champions of a similar program in New Jersey are Democratic Mayor Corey Booker, and fellow Democratic state senator Raymond Lesniak.

The political dynamics are different in city halls and statehouses than they are on Capitol Hill. The unions may lobby just as fiercely in every case, but the pushback from constituents is stronger at lower levels of government.

Few seats in the U.S. House or Senate are decided on the basis of education platforms, but education plays a larger role in the election of state and local officials. As parents get angrier and demand educational alternatives for their kids, politicians outside of Congress are more apt to take notice.

What’s more, DC already has what amounts to a targeted school voucher program — and it’s larger than the federal voucher program that President Obama wishes to phase out. The District currently sends nearly 2,500 special needs students to private schools because it is not able to serve them itself. The program is uncontroversial.

Why not extend to all families a choice currently enjoyed by so few? The Department of Education’s recent study shows that students who have been in the voucher program since it began in 2004 are performing more than two school years ahead of their public school counterparts in reading. There is unconscionable to deny that benefit to other students.

When the “common school” reformers began their campaign for state‐​run schooling more than 200 years ago, one of their core goals was to ensure that the education of America’s poorest citizens did not fall by the wayside.

Despite the best efforts of generation after generation of subsequent reformers, that goal remains unmet for far too many children. We can’t wait any longer. DC kids can’t wait any longer.

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