Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

An Experiment in Education

by Jacob Grier

The license plates on the cars in Washington, D. C. read “Taxation without Representation” in protest of the District’s lack of voting members in Congress. Now, as the Senate delays approving a bill that would provide the area’s families with scholarships for private schools, perhaps a better slogan would be “Education without Innovation.”
The children attending the capital city’s public schools are trapped in a failing system. The 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress compared six urban school districts in a variety of categories – D. C. scored consistently at the bottom. More than three quarters of the District’s eighth-graders perform below grade level in math and only 10% are considered proficient in reading.
In September the House passed a bill that would allocate $10 million to a pilot voucher program to help some of those children find a way out and put pressure on the public schools to improve. The program would give scholarships of $7,500 to some 1,300 students that they could use at private schools in the greater D. C. area, with preference given to low income families. Today that bill sits idly in the Senate, where opponents fearing its passage are obstructing a vote.
Defenders of the status quo believe the problems faced by the District’s schools can be solved by throwing more money at them, but inadequate funding is not the issue. Estimates of per pupil spending in D. C. schools range from a very conservative figure of about $8,500 to over $15,000, depending on what expenses are counted. By any standard this makes D. C. schools among the best funded in the nation. The House bill would not take any money away from them. In fact, it would give the public schools an additional $26 million, more than twice the amount it allocates to vouchers.
Faced with persistent troubles in the District’s public schools and the evident failure of larger budgets to fix them, a number of prominent Democrats have come out in favor of the proposal. Spearheading the effort locally is Mayor Anthony Williams. Former voucher opponents Peggy Cooper Cafritz, School Board President, and Kevin Chavous, head of the City Council’s education committee, join him in supporting vouchers as part of a larger education strategy. Democratic supporters in the Senate include Joseph Lieberman, Robert Byrd, Zell Miller, and Dianne Feinstein, who dramatically announced her position in a Washington Post op-ed this summer.
If finally passed in the Senate, the pilot voucher program will be a valuable experiment in education reform. Taking place in the nation’s capital, it would come under particularly close scrutiny by policy analysts and the media. That carries risks for both sides of the debate.
For opponents of the measure, the risk lies in parents revealing a high demand for the vouchers. They have argued that Congress is trying to thrust an unwanted program upon the District’s citizens. This view will be indefensible if parents line up in droves to apply for the scholarships.
Further, the legislation requires that the progress of students utilizing the vouchers be tracked against students who apply for them but are not approved. If the first group outperforms the second, the viability of vouchers as an escape from the public schools will be established.
Supporters of the measure face risks, too. Foremost among these is that parents may not take advantage of the program, or that they may not stick with it once their children are enrolled. Vouchers would make private schools affordable, but no one can know for sure if the scholarships will be used until parents are given the opportunity to choose what they think is best for their kids.
Secondly, supporters of school choice must be wary of imposing additional costs on the private school system. The acceptance of federally funded vouchers could end up being an invitation for intrusive new regulations, reducing the autonomy of private schools in determining their own curricula and hiring standards. If instituting vouchers requires too many political bargains, supporters of educational freedom may have to turn to other alternatives, such as universal tax credits.
If approved, the D. C. voucher program will be experimental in the best sense of the word. Supporters and opponents will both have something at stake, the results will be accounted for, and everyone will be watching. In the meantime, over a thousand of the city’s children will be given a shot at a decent education. The Senate should vote to let this experiment commence.

Jacob Grier is founder and editor emeritus of The Vanderbilt Torch, a libertarian and conservative commentary magazine at Vanderbilt University. He is currently doing an education policy internship in Washington, D. C.