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Vouching For It
William Britt • How vouchers will save DC schools
Commencement 2003

America is a land of freedom. Fat free, cholesterol free, sugar free, cavity free... we like liberty. And what we call liberty is more than just the freedom to choose; additionally, it is the maximization of choices. We Americans prefer to keep our options open: life-long marriage commitments are negotiable after a few months, market watchers scream “diversify,” and we pay people in stock options. For better or for worse, the maximization of options has become definitive of freedom, capitalism, and the American way.

Then, we turn to education, the greatest responsibility we have to our children, and we suddenly decide that choices are scary because choice funnels money away from public schools. Choice makes parents active participants in something about which the state knows best. Worst of all, choice means government-funded religion when desperate families turn to Catholic schools for education.

As I write, the political waters are boiling in Washington, D.C., over what to do about children stuck in the nation’s worst school system. Because of D.C.’s unique status, Congress has mayoral control over the city, including its failing students. President Bush has proposed a voucher program, sponsored by Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), that would give $45 million in vouchers over five years to low-income families, offering up to 8,300 students $3,750 to $5,000 to help defray the cost of private education.

Lest anyone get the impression that the D.C. public schools are really bad, let me clarify: they are worse than really bad. Glancing down the school-by-school list of Stanford 9 scores at local high schools (helpfully provided on the DCPS website), I note three or four schools that are above the national average in math and reading. Other than that, the first school on the list seems representative: 31, 30, and 33 as averages for the ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades in reading; 37, 34, 37 in math. The national average is 50 for all categories. The average SAT score in 2001 was 796 for DCPS students, painfully below the 1020 national average. These statistics go on and on, but they are all variations on the same theme of inadequacy and underperformance.

This is not a new problem for the District of Columbia. The city has been throwing money at its public schools for a long time now, spending almost twice the amount of money per student as the national average. Polls in 1988 showed that vouchers were incredibly unpopular among D.C. residents; 10 years later, Clinton vetoed voucher legislation and chose to simply increase spending. Now, after waiting five more years, public opinion polls show that overwhelming majorities of residents seek some kind of help.

Assistance has been coming, slowly. Last year, 1,000 privately funded vouchers were made available–more than 7,000 applications flooded in. Parents are trying to take charge of their children’s schooling. Shouldn’t we let them?

Charter schools–public, alternative schools–continue to grow rapidly, and many argue that they are sufficient to stabilize the problem. But they’ve been “growing rapidly” for several years now, and still no real pressure is being put on failing public schools to fix up or close down.

And here we find another inconsistency. On one hand, opponents of vouchers like D.C.’s Democratic Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton criticize the proposal for taking away money from public schools and funneling it to private schools, leaving behind the children who do not end up with vouchers. Aside from being factually untrue (the proposal would increase funding to public and charter schools in addition to the vouchers), this argument does not seem to fit with the claim that charter schools are sufficient. Norton’s complaint sounds like: the Titanic is sinking, but we can’t fit everyone on the lifeboats so no one should go. Whereas, the charter school proponents seem to be saying that we don’t need any more lifeboats (new solutions), we just need to give more time to the ones we have so they can make more trips.

Ideally, of course, public schools would be high quality, and everyone would come out of them well-educated. Slightly less than ideal would be poorer schools, supplemented by good charter school options capable of picking up the slack so that at least everyone who went through school came out with the ability to read. Neither of these scenarios is what we are dealing with.

In fact, the sinking ship is an apt metaphor. It does not seem to matter how much money has been pushed at the problem in traditional ways–it just refuses to go away. Perhaps, then, we should stop putting engineers on the job and start getting people off the ship.

This does not have to be an argument for the eventual privatization of schooling; rather, it is an argument for the value of competition. In the past three months, both Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the president of D.C.’s school board,, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams have moved from being vocal opponents of a voucher program to cautious but enthusiastic advocates. They have been swayed by the idea that giving parents a real choice in whether to send their children to public or private school will force public schools to compete with private ones– to shape up, in other words.

And now, having resolved that both additional funding and the addition of charter schools have failed to improve the school system and having shown that, in fact, vouchers do not leave students behind, we are now ready to address the heart of the resistance to a voucher program in D.C.: separation of church and state.In an interview, Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) complains that a voucher system “kicks down the wall” of “the Establishment Clause of separation of church and state.” Columnist Marc Fisher of the Washington Post agrees. These objectors fear that the use of government money to fund private and, more importantly, religious education is tantamount to the establishment of a state religion.

While this seems a legitimate fear at first, it is actually rather odd. The vouchers would be less than or equal to the cost of tuition, and could only be used toward that end. So there would be no monetary incentive, no way in which the government was pushing people to choose the vouchers and the private, religious schools. The vouchers just level the playing field, giving low-income families the same, or at least similar enough, options that richer families already have.

Think of the GI bill, or any other government-sponsored scholarship that can only be used for school. Such benefits can be used at both public and private universities, whether secular or religious. Some have even used the GI bill to go to seminary. Has this resulted in governmental control over religious schools? No. The government has no more control than it had before the GI bill. Instead, the GI bill, like voucher programs, gives those without money the ability to legitimately choose between schools, rather than between financial aid packages.

The ability of parents to choose which school their children attend, regardless of the cost, is the best incentive for D.C. public schools to improve. They obviously have enough money dedicated to them; a voucher program will force them to use it productively or go under. Welcome to the free market, folks. Why would parents choose to put their kids in private education? Not because they get money for it–they won’t. The incentive will be because private education works better, at least until public schools take the hint and work better, too.

There is one more issue here, however. Barbara Miner, a parent in Milwaukee (which already has a voucher system), laments the lack of accountability for private schools. She claims that the state has no idea how well voucher students are doing because private schools can do whatever they want when it comes to teachers, curriculum, etc. While I agree that this is a problem, the situation seems resolvable: require standardized testing.

Now, I recognize that standardized testing is annoying. I realize that some kids do not test well. I understand the objections to standardized testing, but it is the best thing we have for, well, making sure kids meet standards. And, especially in this case, the testing does not have to be incredibly complex. If every kid at a private school graduates with a demonstrated ability to read, education in D.C. will have improved.

The school system is not perfectible, and it is not a forgone conclusion that a voucher program will save the failing system in D.C.However, we have tried throwing more money at the schools and we have tried charter schools.Neither has solved the problem.It is time for a new initiative, and a voucher program seems to be the best one available.

William Britt is a freshman in Morse College.


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