400 Capitol Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
- Toll Free 1.888.564.6273
- Local 202.783.3870
<p>Rich Republicans join ultraliberals in defense of failing schools.</p>
<p>Five long years after Bill Clinton vetoed education vouchers for the poorest pupils in the District of Columbia, the political stars are realigning. The question now is whether Republicans are going to miss this opportunity to match policy with their we-care-for-poor-kids rhetoric.
A voucher bill narrowly passed a House committee yesterday, 22-21, allocating $7,500 a year to low-income children shackled to schools where kids aren't learning. President Bush, who earmarked $75 million of his 2004 budget for school choice pilot programs, has promised to sign the legislation. This represents the best chance yet to demonstrate that vouchers can improve the lives of kids trapped in our nation's worst school systems.</p>
<p>The District already spends well over $15,000 per student (the national average is $8,500), three times more than in 1980. Yet in the latest National Assessment of Education Progress report, D.C. public school students scored lower than all 50 states. Seventy-two percent of black D.C. students read at the "below basic" level, which means they have "little or no mastery of fundamental knowledge and skills." Who can possibly defend such results?</p>
<p>This scandal has finally shaken Washington, D.C., officials, who have abandoned their former hostility to vouchers. D.C. school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Kevin Chavous, a D.C. council member who heads the education committee, and Mayor Anthony Williams are all now choice advocates.
On the District's Web site, Mayor Williams calls it a "human tragedy" that "approximately 40% of adults in our city read only at a third grade level . . . [and] can't complete a job application or advance beyond an entry-level position." By way of explaining his change of heart on vouchers, the Mayor recently told Congress that parents tell him "there are no practical and easy alternatives for their children within the current system of public schools." He says he "cannot tell parents they must continue to wait while there are other outlets in our midst."</p>
<p>With all of this new support, it's fascinating to see how the unions are scrambling to scuttle this offer of hope at the last minute. This week People for the American Way, an outfit in bed with the unions, released a report claiming that the voucher pilot is all about "ultra-conservative elements" who want to destroy public education. Apparently Anthony Williams and all those poor D.C. parents have now joined the vast right-wing conspiracy. It says something about the reactionary condition of modern liberalism that one of its great causes is defending failed inner-city schools.</p>
<p>The other last-ditch strategy is to work through individual Republicans who are trying to sabotage the bill as it moves through Congress. Todd Platts, a GOP Congressman from exurban Pennsylvania, tried to block the bill from getting to the floor and voted against it in committee. And earlier this week House Appropriator Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey inserted his own poison pill into a spending bill.</p>
<p>We wonder if either of these worthies has ever met a D.C. parent or child. Here's how the 2002 Almanac of American Politics describes Mr. Frelinghuysen's horse-country district: "Only in the late 20th Century has it come into its own as one of the wealthiest areas in the United States. And it is not just a collection of country estates, with huddled small towns for the servants to live in, but a well-rounded community with all the appurtenances of urbanity except high crime and poverty rates." Maybe Mr. Frelinghuysen can offer D.C. dropouts a job cleaning the stables. </p>
<p>It's hard to believe that if the now-retired Dick Armey were still in the GOP House leadership, a backbench Pennsylvanian and a New Jersey Brahmin would be able to keep poor black kids in D.C. stuck in schools that they'd never allow their own children anywhere near. These days it falls to Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay to prevent Republicans from living up to the liberal stereotype that they are the indifferent rich.
Polls show that black parents are the nation's strongest, most consistent supporters of educational choice. For decades they have waited for some acknowledgment of this from the black political establishment. Thanks to Mayor Williams and a few other brave local leaders, it's finally come. What an outrage it will be if a GOP White House and Congress can't get their act together to capitalize on this golden educational opportunity.</p>