Politics & Policy

Emancipation Proclamation

The Senate's chance to save D.C. kids.

The U.S. Senate soon will resume consideration of a $13 million voucher program for victims of Washington, D.C.’s government schools. It would offer some 2,000 disadvantaged students up to $7,500 for private- or parochial-school tuition. Alas, Senator Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) promises to filibuster against this plan.

Republicans should welcome Kennedy’s divisive threats. Black voters could learn plenty by watching this Democratic icon try to keep black boys and girls in schools that asphyxiate their minds. Expect Democrats such as Kennedy, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, and Illinois’s Dick Durbin to keep defending the indefensible D.C. public schools.

According to the latest Census Bureau data, DCPS budgeted $15,122 per pupil, ranking it first in spending, above all 50 states. That approaches twice the $8,521 U.S. average and is $2,668 more than number-two New Jersey’s $12,454 budget.

And what do these riches buy? The U.S. Education Department’s 2002 Trial Urban District Assessment examined schools in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York (fourth graders only) and Washington. It compared ghetto classrooms to each other rather than against beach towns and leafy suburbs. Even here, DCPS fails.

While 30 percent of American fourth graders read proficiently, and 21 percent in central cities do so, only 10 percent of DCPS students read at grade level, placing the nation’s capitol last among the cities surveyed. Thirty percent of U.S. eighth graders wrote proficiently versus 22 percent in central cities and 10 percent in DCPS, tying Washington last with Atlanta.

Last year, DCPS students averaged 796 on the 1,600-point Scholastic Aptitude Test, down from 822 in 2000. The 2002 U.S. average was 1,020 versus 1,188 for Washington’s religious schools and 1,210 for

independent schools.

“Instead of narrowing,” wrote Casey Lartigue in a September 19 Cato Institute study, “the gap between the national average and D.C. public schools has increased from 203 to 224 points since 1998.”

Washington mayor Anthony Williams supports these vouchers, as do school-board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz and City Councilman Kevin Chavous–all black Democrats. Williams laments the saddest statistic of all: 37 percent of Washington’s adults read at or below third-grade level. Visualize a 35-year-old Washingtonian reading like a ten-year-old. Imagine how DCPS’ long-term brain damage hinders her job prospects, income, health care, and, ultimately, life expectancy. Kennedy should explain the social justice in that.

Thankfully, these vouchers are funded above and beyond DCPS’s budget. The system now leaks like a canteen made of chicken wire. Last spring, auditors discovered 640 more employees on staff than were budgeted. They also found $1.6 million in improper hotel, dining and entertainment expenses on DCPS credit cards. Meanwhile, DCPS has devoured six CFOs since July 2001.

The Washington Teachers Union is even worse. On October 7, Barbara Bullock, its former president, pleaded guilty to federal mail-fraud and conspiracy charges. She stole some $2.5 million in union dues and shared them with WTU executives and associates. This money financed, among many things, a $6,800 crystal ice bucket, a 288-piece Tiffany silverware set, $500,000 in tailored clothing, private-school tuition for the children of another convicted conspirator and an unregistered, double-barrel shot gun.

Ballou High School stars in DCPS’s latest tragicomedy. The campus closed indefinitely on October 2 after students entered an unused, unlocked, unsupervised honors chemistry lab. They uncovered and played with a half cup of mercury, a toxic, liquid metal. They tossed it at each other and spread it around the school. The EPA is sanitizing things while classes meet at Washington’s old Convention Center.

“It’s always something,” says Virginia Walden-Ford of D.C. Parents for School Choice. “Every week, we get some news that makes me more committed to fight for the kids in Washington.”

The group’s newspaper and TV ads say that “40 years ago politicians like George Wallace stood in the doors of good schools trying to prevent poor Black children from getting in.” Kennedy, Landrieu, and Durbin, they continue, “are standing in the doors of bad schools refusing to let black children out.”

As recent convert Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.;) understands, Kennedy, Landrieu, Durbin, and other voucher foes are out of excuses, beyond protecting their teachers-union clientele. The Senate immediately should emancipate Washington’s children from this K-12 plantation.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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