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Voucherize D.C. Schools
An idea Republicans should run with.


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Deroy Murdock

With all deliberate speed, the Republican Congress should send President Bush a bill to voucherize Washington, D.C.’s government schools. His signature would begin to rescue the capitol’s embattled students while vividly illustrating how Republicans can improve the lives of America’s black families.

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It’s hard to imagine a place that more urgently needs school choice than the District of Columbia Public Schools. As Cato Institute scholar Casey Lartigue demonstrates in a new study, the DCPS’s chief product is ignorance.

“The record shows that the district has failed miserably in its mission to educate children,” Lartigue’s heartbreaking policy analysis states. “The best way to hold schools accountable is to give parents an opportunity to withdraw their children from schools that are failing them.”

On the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, 6 percent of DCPS’s eighth graders performed math at grade level, versus a U.S. average of 31 percent. On the 1998 NAEP writing test, 11 percent of DCPS’s eighth graders were proficient or advanced, compared to 25 percent nationally. On that year’s NAEP, only 10 percent of DCPS’ fourth graders read at grade level, versus 35 percent nationally.

While 31 percent of U.S. students currently fail to finish high school, 42 percent of DCPS pupils drop out. Among DCPS graduates who reach the University of the District of Columbia, 85 percent need remedial education.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported in 1997 that DCPS officials illegally kept two sets of books and “reprogrammed” money to pay unauthorized staffers. That year, $1.6 million mandated for needy students somehow became employees’ salaries.

According to a December 18 FBI affidavit, labor bosses in the Washington Teacher’s Union waltzed off with some $2 million in members’ dues. As WTU honchos reportedly let rent and utilities bills pile up, they allegedly purchased a $6,800 crystal ice bucket, $17,000 in furs, a $57,000, 288-piece Tiffany sterling-silver service set, and more.

DCPS itself is virtually gold-plated. It spent $10,477 on each of its 67,500 pupils in 2000-2001, versus a national average of $7,483 as the National Education Association estimates. Ahead of the 50 states, the NEA ranked DCPS as America’s number-one school system — in public funding. Taxpayers finance 10,967 DCPS employees; only 4,719 of them teach.

This all might be excusable if DCPS did not cripple so many Washingtonians for life. But as Mayor Anthony Williams lamented at his January 2 inauguration: “Almost 37 percent of the adults in this city read only at a third-grade level.”

Vouchers would inject a desperately needed dose of competition into an arthritic system that has brought the intellectual growth of its youth to a grinding halt. A 1998 Post survey found that 56 percent of Washingtonians favor vouchers, as do 60 percent of blacks polled. In 1997, the private Washington Scholarship Fund offered to help 1,000 students attend private schools. Some 10,000 applications poured in. An additional 500 grants attracted 7,500 candidates in 1998.

Congress could follow former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s model. The Texas Republican proposed voluntary vouchers of $3,750 for students in families up to 185 percent of the poverty line or $5,000 for those at or below the poverty line. Among 70 local private schools Cato surveyed, 36 charge annual tuition under $5,000. Twenty of those cost $3,750 or less. Vouchers would entice educational entrepreneurs to expand and launch schools, just as the G.I. Bill boosted affordable learning options after World War II.

The GOP Congress passed a similar Armey measure in 1998 with the support of Senate Democrats John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman and New York’s now-retired Daniel Patrick Moynihan. President Clinton then vetoed that legislation, confirming his party’s allergy to school choice and its loyalty to organized labor.

Republicans should give Democrats another chance to pick between their electoral base (as represented by Washington’s predominantly black families) and their teachers’-union donors.

If Democrats again help Republicans assist Washington’s poor, mainly black pupils improve their minds today and their futures tomorrow, hallelujah! If, instead, Democrats stick with the teachers’ unions as sentries of the status quo, they will have stood with the mighty over the meek. When Democrats make that choice, they will teach plenty to their countrymen, not least of them Washington’s swindled students.

— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.



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