Laboratories of Educational Choice: The D.C .Experiment

by Clint W. Green

In the divinely ordained institution of the family, parents are given responsibility for the upbringing of children. The experience of the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF) is a case study in the exercise of this parental responsibility (and the opposition it sometimes evokes).

In 1993, the WSF was established as a privately funded school voucher program in Washington, DC. In 1997, the WSF expanded its program and in the following spring received over 6,000 applications from students in government and private schools in the District. Of these, 1,000 scholarships of up to $1,700 were awarded.

In February of 2000, the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University released an evaluation of the program in the District. The evaluation found, among other things, that 95% of the students participating were African-American. Furthermore, those African-American students who switched from government schools to private schools in grades two through five scored higher &#0151 an average of 3 percentile points in reading and 7 percentile points in math &#0151 than their peers in government schools. Additionally, parents of students in the WSF program reported that the class sizes were, on average, smaller in private schools (18 pupils in private schools as opposed to 22 in government schools). The study also noted that parental contact with a child’s school occurred with greater frequency.

While this evaluation mentions, correctly, that it would be premature to draw any lasting and permanent conclusions from the data, it also states that “the results do suggest that vouchers for low income families may be particularly effective, initially at least, if concentrated on students in lower grades. These students have fewer problems adjusting to private school and score higher in math after six or seven months in a private school setting.”

Given this evidence, as well as research provided by the Milwaukee and Cleveland programs in parental choice, the recent move by President Bush to expand parental choice programs in Washington, DC, seems logical. On February 7, 2003 the Washington Post reported that the US Department of Education had announced President Bush’s decision to ask Congress to set aside $75 million for a school voucher program in the District, along with six or seven other cities across the nation.

As expected, this move has caused criticism from the usual suspects who oppose the rights of parents to choose what type of education their children will receive. This laundry list of opponents includes the District’s teachers unions, the mayor, the school board, and District Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose opposition to the parental right to choose is well established.

The portion of the president’s plan that seems to have attracted the most opposition is its provision allowing non-profit organizations, such as the WSF, to apply to distribute the vouchers to District families. A careful reading of the remarks made by some of the opponents explains why.

Delegate Holmes Norton remarked, “the notion of skirting public officials by funding a private entity is both insulting to public officials in the District of Columbia and treating the District in a way no other city or state is treated. And we will not be treated unequally. We demand equal treatment when it comes to federal funds.”

These remarks are telling in that they carefully avoid any mention of failing schools, parental choice, or of doing what is best for the children of the District. Instead, Ms. Holmes Norton is focused on the idea that federal money might bypass the District of Columbia’s bureaucracy and go directly to the families and students who need it. In the end, the argument is not about students; rather, it is about who will get the money.

Delegate Holmes Norton also questioned why the Education Department did not focus more on the growing charter school movement in the District: “Why would someone try to come in and take money that might go to charter schools and use it far less efficiently?” The same question might be asked of the District’s government schools and union representatives. In September of 2002, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia received a complaint from the Washington Teachers’ Union and its parent body, the American Federation of Teachers, alleging serious criminal activity on the part of the union’s officials, including embezzlement and other improper use of union funds. The FBI’s investigation has thus far found evidence of the misappropriation of over $2,000,000 in union funds. It is just this type of theft and systemic corruption that the Department of Education is attempting to prevent.

The District of Columbia’s public schools are not exempt from waste and inefficiency either. In 2002, the District of Columbia Auditor issued a report in which it was found that over $67 million was paid to private vendors providing special education services, without the Office of Special Education validating the eligibility of students or the accuracy of vendor invoices. This resulted in the District paying over $1.2 million to vendors for services provided to 567 students who were ineligible for special education services, or whose eligibility could not be determined. The auditor also found that the District overcharged the public schools for utilities and other services in excess of $1 million. More than mere waste and inefficiency, this constitutes a gravely unjust and immoral stewardship of money earmarked for the education of children.

Allowing parental choice in the education of children is not a privilege bestowed on parents by the state; it flows, instead, from the very nature of parenthood itself, which is a reflection of the Divine Fatherhood of God. Restoring to parents those means and resources, rightfully belonging to them, makes educational choice a reality, giving children a greater chance of educational success. While vouchers are far from perfect in all their long-term implications, they are a step in the right direction for freeing up a system hostile to educational choice. The evidence in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and in Washington, D.C. confirms this. Rather than concerning themselves with protecting an unethical and unjust system that allows for systemic corruption, theft, waste, and inefficiency, the District’s leaders should be championing a program that offers the means necessary for Washington’s children to find the success so often denied them in failing government schools.

Clint Green is the programs officer at the Acton Institute and a former middle school teacher.

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)

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