Tipping Point For School Choice
D.C. reverberations.


In his recent bestseller, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the magic moment when an idea, product, or trend achieves mainstream status. Cell phones, for example, “tipped” in 1998. Cellular technology and sales improved steadily throughout the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 1998 that people realized the phones were everywhere.

News from the nation’s capital suggests 2003 could be the “tipping point” for school choice. If that’s the case, events in the District of Columbia may impact Arizona politics.

Anthony Williams — the Democratic mayor of a city where Republicans are outnumbered nine to one — recently bucked party loyalties to embrace a school-voucher program proposed by President Bush. Mayor Williams had long opposed vouchers and explained his change of heart candidly, noting that he “just got up one morning and decided there are a lot of kids getting a crappy education.” Rather than using the same model that had been tried for 140 years, he said, “it’s time to try something else.”

Nearly everyone agrees that D.C. public schools are in desperate need of reform. For years, the system has distinguished itself as one of the nation’s worst. The results speak for themselves: One in three D.C. adults can’t read. On standardized college-entrance exams, District students score 22 percent lower than the national average, according to a Cato Institute analysis.

Voucher supporters believe that giving parents control of their children’s education will spur widespread improvement throughout the ailing system. Creating a marketplace for education, they argue, would force public and private schools alike to compete for students by offering better services.

The D.C. voucher program, which Congress would oversee, would be one of the most revolutionary educational experiments ever tried. According to the current plan, voucher scholarships would be available solely to low-income families and would likely be valued between $5,000 and $10,000 apiece. Overall, the program could help between five and ten thousand students transfer from public to private schools — a major impact on a school system with 67,500 students.

Defenders of the current public-school system — including most congressional Democrats — argue that increased funding, not vouchers, is the best means of helping students. Yet per-pupil spending in Washington is already the nation’s highest, and years of ever-larger budgets have yielded scant progress.

To the dismay of many in his party, Mayor Williams isn’t the only high-profile District Democrat to hop aboard the voucher bandwagon. Earlier this spring, in a pro-voucher commentary in the Washington Post, D.C. school-board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz also embraced the president’s proposal.

The tipping point may not be far off. The D.C. voucher proposal hits Congress later this year, and the rise in support by local Democrats could have a dramatic effect. Six years ago, a similar proposal passed both the House and Senate with support from a handful of prominent Democrats, only to be vetoed by President Bill Clinton.

This time around, with no threat of a presidential veto, the Republican-controlled Congress is expected to pass the voucher program. But strident Democratic opposition could still stop the bill in its tracks. The party has long been an unquestioned ally of the public-school establishment and the politically powerful teachers unions that firmly oppose vouchers.

Still, some Democrats-for both philosophical and practical reasons-could follow Mayor Williams into the voucher camp. By highlighting the deplorable state of D.C. public schools and the many disadvantaged children who would benefit from the president’s program, an independent-minded Democrat could win much popular support by bucking the party line. Senator Joseph Lieberman, for example, was a sponsor of the 1997 D.C. voucher bill. As a centrist candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, he certainly has good political reasons to buck the party line. If the D.C. voucher bill passes, newly empowered parents may be adding a few courageous Democrats to the top of their thank-you lists.

Here in Arizona, despite the state’s continued success with choice reforms like charter schools and tax credits, most Democratic lawmakers still oppose school choice. How much longer can they resist the idea of allowing families to pick the best learning environments for their children? If D.C. proves to be the tipping point, it may not be much longer.

Dan Lips is President of the Arizona Dream Foundation and an associate scholar with the Goldwater Institute.