Republicans are riding to the rescue of Washington, D.C.’s academically abused government-school students. President Bush has allocated $75 million in his Fiscal 2004 budget to fund voucher programs in seven or eight cities, including Washington. Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake has introduced the five-year, $45 million D.C. School Choice Act to provide vouchers for up to 8,300 students in the District of Columbia Public Schools. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg’s new bill authorizes $55 million in vouchers over six years.
Rather than applaud higher funds and broader choices, however, local officials sound as if Republicans were handing kids poisoned apples.
“The mayor does not support public funds for vouchers in private schools,” said Tony Bullock, Mayor Anthony Williams’s spokesman, last month.
“Vouchers drain critical dollars from neighborhood schools,” D.C.’s Democratic congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote Education Secretary Rod Paige February 4. Never mind that Bush, Flake and Gregg offer new money atop the DCPS budget. Like ice cream a la mode, it nibbles nothing from the cherry pie it adorns.
Norton also hopes to “avoid the bitterness of the voucher fights that were prompted by congressional attempts to force vouchers on the District in the recent past.” (In 1998, President Clinton vetoed a bipartisan bill that, like Flake’s, offered low-income students vouchers between $3,750 and $5,000 redeemable at public, private, or parochial campuses.)
Norton did not explain how one person can “force” an option on another. Moreover, her claim that vouchers are being imposed is like the Pharaoh complaining that Moses “imposed” the Israelites’ escape to the Promised Land.
Oddly enough, DCPS insiders inadvertently make the case for crossing the Red Sea to a voucher plan. School officials are among the system’s most brutal critics.
Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz called about half of the DCPS teachers incompetent. “It’s a large percentage,” she told the Washington Post’s editorial board in remarks published February 22, 2001. “It’s probably around 50 percent.”
Hearing this, former Washington Teachers’ Union president Barbara Bullock lifted off like an al-Samoud missile. “That’s just like saying all blacks folks steal,” she fumed. (Bullock subsequently resigned and is being investigated for allegedly diverting $5 million in union dues to purchase such items as a $500 pen she reportedly gave Mayor Williams, $11,000 in shoes and $500,000 in custom-tailored garments.)
Cafritz clarified that “I mean it about high schools…I didn’t mean it about elementary schools.” She added that “about half of our high school teachers are not really masters of the content they teach.” Cafritz also lamented that Washington’s schools endured “a total and complete disintegration of a system that has happened over the last 30 years.”
That September 25, Cafritz appeared at a forum cosponsored by Harper’s Magazine and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “This school system has not had a curriculum in years,” she said. “It went through a 20-year period where teachers were not tested. So the expectations in the school system are extremely low, and in part because we have such a high poverty index, the parent body in D.C. public schools is easily bamboozled. They do not know what to expect.” She insultingly continued: “Many of them are victims of the same school system that we’re now trying to fix.”
Last July 31, the Washington Times covered DCPS’ delays in notifying parents that they could transfer students out of 12 low-quality schools. Frustrated, Cafritz remarked: “We cannot manufacture schools that do not exist. All of our high schools — except Banneker, Walls, Ellington and Wilson — are generally lousy, so where do we send the children?”
Superintendent Paul Vance also seems to be on truth serum. “In the District, historically, you haven’t had A-tier teachers,” he told the Post. “You have what we would call in other school systems B- and C-tier teachers. When you’ve got a C-tier teacher, they are teachers [sic] who could not get jobs anyplace else, so they hired them here.”
Vance also charged that school administrators “are quite content with conditions which are less than mediocre.” He said that DCPS lacks “the collective instructional intelligence to manage and supervise what it is we are doing.”
Last October 18, Thomas Jones, principal of Rudolph Elementary School, complained that textbooks had not arrived six weeks into the semester. “This is nothing new for D.C. schools,” he told the Post.
School board member Tommy Wells criticized Cato Institute voucher advocate Casey Lartigue in the December 2 Post. Still, Wells conceded that DCPS is “a broken school system…racked by decades of neglect and mismanagement.”
As the DCPS population dwindles, Mayor Williams sounds puzzled by spiraling budget demands. “How can you justify increasing funds for a school system that is losing students?” he wonders.
If anything glitters, it is the DCPS till. Ranked above the 50 states in expenditures, the National Education Association says DCPS spent $13,078 per-pupil in 2000-2001, (versus a $7,463 U.S. average). That bought it a 40-percent dropout rate. Washington’s private-school students averaged 1,195 points (out of 1,600) on the 2002 SAT. While the U.S. average was 1,020, DCPS averaged 796, down from 822 in 2000.
In December 1997, then DCPS chief academic officer, Arlene Ackerman, warned that Washington’s students faced “educational genocide.” Six years later, they remain equally imperiled.
— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.