D.C.’S Chance For Choice
Competition for a failing school system.


“I think the teachers’ union needs to understand that the public sector needs to be in competition,” says Anthony Williams, Washington, D.C.’s Democratic mayor. “In the long run we’ll be stronger for being competitive.”

D.C.’s gold-plated public schools certainly could not get any weaker. Despite spending nearly $12,000 per pupil — more than all but two other school districts in the country — D.C.’s schools fall near the bottom in achievement. Even controlling for income, location, race, and ethnicity, D.C. still ranks last in both math and reading for fourth- and eighth-grade students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

While D.C.’s public schools are falling apart, the local teachers’ union is cleaning up. An extensive federal investigation has revealed that union leadership misappropriated nearly $5 million, much of it for personal items. The FBI seized items ranging from alligator shoes to a $6,800 antique ice bucket — all purchased with union dues.

In the wake of these problems, Williams describes his newfound support for vouchers as an epiphany. “It’s extra money,” he said. “There is no reason to not take it. . . . Why shouldn’t we try something when there is no financial impact on the public schools?”

His announcement came only a few months after he told the Washington Times that he would never accept a government-sponsored voucher program in the city. Earlier this year, D.C. school-board president Peggy Cafritz also reversed course on school choice.

Williams’s and Cafritz’s unexpected change of heart caught many D.C. Democrats off guard. With the mayor and the school-board president both backing President Bush’s school-choice initiative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s non-voting congressional delegate, has found herself in a shrinking group of vocal opponents of the bill.

Although Norton is hesitant to defend the public-school system, she contends that more federal money for charter schools (nontraditional public schools) is the only solution to the district’s problems. She believes that these schools meet all of Bush’s criteria for extra funding, yet many remain underfunded: “The district has decided what they want: charter and transformation schools. . . . If there is any extra money in the federal budget, they are the schools that fit the administration’s call. Instead . . . the notion is that we have to go to vouchers.”

But D.C.’s charter schools are not the panacea that Norton describes.

“Private school saved my son’s life. He was going down the wrong road and nobody cared about it but me,” says Virginia Walden-Ford. “The charter schools offer some comfort, but most of them have waiting lists or are full. Our public schools have had money and it clearly hasn’t been used to the advantage of low-income children. Parents are out of possibilities. . . . [They] need options outside the public schools.”

If parents don’t want vouchers, as Norton claims, they are not obliged to use them, but it’s unlikely that that would happen. The bigger problem for Norton and the unions is that school choice just might work. Considering the problems facing the D.C. school district, a successful voucher program would offer advocates a legitimate case study for future legislation.

The District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act, which is currently pending in the House Government Reform Committee, is sponsored by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. The bill allocates $7 million in 2004 and $10 million in subsequent years to establish a number of $3,500 or $5,000 scholarships for low-income students who want to attend local private or parochial schools.

All of this newfound support has not come without a cost for Republicans. Some wonder whether Flake’s bill is an attempt to buy off Williams. After coming out in support of vouchers, Williams says he also expects more federal money for the D.C. public-school system. This has left many Republicans in a bind — although they do not want to capitulate to Williams’s additional demand for more money, they want to take advantage of his support. Meanwhile, school-choice advocates are frantically urging Republicans to compromise and take advantage of Williams’s and Cafritz’s unexpected support.

Political wrangling aside, Flake’s bill offers D.C.’s parents a choice — a choice to embrace their children’s education and present more opportunities than the public schools are capable of offering. As a Democrat in a Democratic city, Williams is risking a substantial amount of political capital to put D.C.’s kids in front of the demands of the teachers’ unions. As he put it: “I don’t think we should sacrifice our children on the altar of some institution.”

James Justin Wilson is an NR intern.