Out of Argument
D.C. voucher foes are fighting a losing battle.


Deroy Murdock

As the House Government Reform Committee this week considers Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R., Arizona) proposed vouchers for Washington D.C.’s government schools, educational-choice advocates are sitting pretty. Defenders of the status quo have nothing. Their anti-voucher arguments evaporate in the faintest sunlight. Like pioneers vainly searching Death Valley for shade, voucherphobes have nowhere to hide.

Watch their anti-voucher criticisms scatter like tumbleweeds:

Clearly, we’ve not spent enough. False. The National Education Association ranks the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) above the 50 states in expenditures. In 2001-2002, it spent $13,078 per-pupil versus a $7,463 U.S. average. Taxpayers finance 10,967 DCPS employees, of whom only 4,719 teach.

The kids are all right. Wrong. DCPS largesse funds a 42-percent high-school dropout rate, versus 31 percent nationwide. In 2002, Washington’s private-school students averaged 1,195 on the 1600-point Scholastic Aptitude Test. While America averaged 1,020, DCPS averaged 822 in 2000 and 796 last year. Meanwhile, 85 percent of DCPS graduates at the University of D.C. require remedial instruction.

On the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 6 percent of DCPS eighth graders performed grade-level math, versus 31 percent across America. On 1998′s NAEP, 11 percent of DCPS eighth graders were proficient or advanced in writing, compared to 25 percent nationally. That year, 10 percent of DCPS fourth graders read at grade level, versus 35 percent nationwide.

“Vouchers drain critical dollars from neighborhood schools,” complains D.C.’s Democratic congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. Actually, President Bush’s fiscal 2004 budget requests $75 million for vouchers in Washington, among other cities. Flake’s D.C. School Choice Act proposes $45 million over five years. Senator Judd Gregg’s (R., N.H.) six-year bill authorizes $55 million. Both would offer up to 8,300 low-income students $3,750 to $5,000 vouchers redeemable at public, private, or parochial campuses.

Trust us. We’re honest. The DCPS ethical environment is virtually toxic. The Washington Teachers Union’s labor bosses allegedly embezzled $5 million in membership dues to purchase antiques, fine art, furs, and more. WTU’s parent, the American Federation of Teachers, apparently let its affiliate run loose. “It seems everyone in a responsible position fell asleep at the switch,” said federal judge Emmet Sullivan in a related case. “The only ones who were vigilant were the thieves, who took everything that wasn’t nailed down.”

DCPS is good enough for the children of Washington’s elite. Michael Wayne Martin disproves this. On March 27, Martin — the son-in-law of WTU honcho Gwendolyn Hemphill — pleaded guilty to laundering $483,543 in union dues. Federal prosecutor Anthony Alexis told the Washington Times that Martin and his wife “used the cash for personal items, furniture, Washington Redskins tickets, limousine service to games and tuition for their two children to attend private school.”

Other powerful Washingtonians preach DCPS to the poor but practice school choice themselves. Delegate Norton sent her now-adult son to private Georgetown Day school. So have many of her anti-voucher congressional colleagues. The Cato Institute’s Casey Lartigue reports that at least four of 13 City Council members (Harold Brazil, Kevin Chavous, Vincent Orange and Kathleen Patterson) have sent kids to private classrooms. As Chavous told the Washington Times: “You have to do what is best for your children.”

D.C.’s parents don’t want vouchers. Local moms loudly disagree. Take Eliza Cooper of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. She and two-dozen pro-voucher mothers were barred from Delegate Norton’s anti-choice press conference on May Day. Cooper says: “Nothing has changed since 40 years ago when politicians stood in the doors of good schools trying to prevent poor students from getting in.”

This is a congressional conspiracy “to force vouchers on the District,” as Delegate Norton has suggested. If so, the plotters got to Mayor Anthony Williams and school board chief Peggy Cooper Cafritz. While each favors modifications, both recently endorsed the GOP’s voucher plans.

Washington politicians and educrats can cry themselves blue. As they resist school choice, predominantly black little girls and boys in the nation’s capitol are trapped in a system that causes long-term brain damage. As Mayor Williams lamented at his January 2 re-inauguration: “Almost 37 percent of the adults in this city read only at a third-grade level.”

This is an emergency. While Bush, Flake, and Gregg reach for fire extinguishers, Delegate Norton and the Coalition of the Careless roast marshmallows as the prospects for Washington’s children go up in flames.

This will not do. Congress immediately should send a D.C. voucher bill to the president for signature.

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