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The Party Against the People

The Learning Curve

By Travis R. Kavulla

There’s no mincing words: Washington D.C.’s public schools are hellish. By the time the system’s students are in the fourth grade, 94 percent are not proficient in math and 90 percent are not proficient in reading. It only gets worse, though. About half of D.C.’s kids don’t graduate. Those who do are not given any sort of terminal proficiency examination; and, if they were, the results would probably be horrific.

Usually, D.C. has been a place slow to change because of the federal government’s death grip on it. While the federal government, unsurprisingly, is willing to give the District money, it’s less politically expedient to use D.C. as a testing ground for innovative changes that might improve the poor quality of life of its majority-black residents.

Yet, this year has been different. Since the 1980s, vouchers have been discussed in D.C., but a lopsided dialogue led by the Democratic Party and teachers’ unions have merely led to their successive dismissal as a solution to D.C.’s education problems. In D.C.’s federally-allocated budget, however, House Republicans successfully amended the text of D.C.’s federally-allocated budget on Sept. 9 to include a pilot vouchers program. And these Republicans, certainly alien figures to the District’s local politics, seem to be getting a lot of unexpected support.

Long anathema for the Democrats, it’s bizarre that in a party stronghold vouchers would have gained such support. A Washington Post poll in 1998, following President Clinton’s veto of D.C. vouchers, found that 65 percent of African-Americans with incomes under $50,000 favored vouchers, and that 56 percent of D.C. residents as a whole wanted them.

Further, D.C. residents elect a mayor and a city council charged with improving the district’s education system. This past year, Anthony Williams, the Democratic mayor of D.C., announced that he had changed his mind on vouchers and would support a Republican initiative in Congress to give $7,500 certificates to any family making under 185 percent of the poverty line. Explaining himself to his party establishment, he said, “We’ve got a model we’ve been using for 140 years. I think it’s time to try something else.” Notably, D.C.’s school board president joined him to issue a similar declaration on the need for vouchers.

In any other state or municipality, both of these big figures would actually have the legal power to control their own education policy. Yet, for D.C., it’s Congress that controls the budget. And when the usual political leaders failed to support the Democratic Party line, anti-voucher forces encouraged Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy ’54-’56, D-Mass., ranking member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, to stage a filibuster. Kennedy and committee Democrats—most of whom practice what might be called private school choice by sending their kids to pricey private schools —happily obliged, and the bill is currently stalled on the Senate floor, after receiving bipartisan approval in committee.

But arguing against vouchers and for putting more funding into D.C. schools is a Democrat’s worst nightmare. As it stands, the District’s schools spend nearly 50 percent more money per student than that nationwide average. And yet, the results of the spending are abyssmal. In this light, defending a budgetary black hole like the status quo doesn’t seem to be viable. One organization, Stop D.C. Vouchers, an organization supported by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two largest teachers’ unions, has merely advised voucher opponents to go on the offensive. In its memoranda, the group advises politicos to claim that the voucher program would rob D.C. schools of money. And following this line, the Democrats have adopted that usual tunein attacking vouchers.

It seems to be a good tactic—if only it were true. Rather, the budget that D.C. will get for education is independent of the voucher program. Simply put, if a family accepts one of the $7,500 vouchers, that funding comes from the federal government, not the D.C. school budget. Indeed, under the program, the school district would pay nothing to send its students to better-performing private schools.

Another notably false argument against such vouchers is that they do not cover the cost of a private education. Well, in a way, it’s true. The $7,500 voucher alone would not cover, say, the cost of a year at St. Alban’s, but the Cato Institute has found that the average private school in the D.C. area costs about $5,000, far less than the voucher provides.

With these facts in mind, the justification for keeping vouchers out of the hands of Washington’s urban poor is puzzling. Despite the House’s approval of the bill, Senate Democrats less a few of their ranks and with a few Republicans have vowed to filibuster, a last line of a defense for a policy that has the majority’s support. Democratic filibusters in the Congress haven’t been entirely petty this past year. But this time around, opponents of the D.C. merely look obstructionist. In response to the Republican bill, supported by many D.C. Democrats and a majority of D.C. residents, Congressional Democrats have failed to propose an alternative to vouchers.

D.C. schools are not getting better and they can scarcely get worse under the status quo, a policy that the Democrats are tacitly supporting through obstruction. Further, parents who can scrape together enough money to afford to send their kids to private schools do, and the rest of the students (by far the worst off in terms of socio-economic status) are left to languish in public schools.

Since the 1980s, vouchers have been suggested as a way of at least balancing the playing field to allow the worst off a choice in where they send their children to school in D.C. Lest they get excited over what clearly would improve D.C. education, Republicans themselves should understand that vouchers are not an all-in-one solution to what ails public education in America. But it’s a step in the right direction, particularly when the system that’s undergoing the reform is D.C.’s, a school system that so horribly fails to educate its students that it seems morbidly out of place in today’s America.

Travis R. Kavulla ’05 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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