The Magazine

Let Them Eat Vouchers

Poor kids in D.C. could get an education if this bill passed the Senate.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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THE MOVEMENT to set up vouchers for low-income kids in Washington, D.C., has gained a surprising ally--lifelong voucher opponent Senator Dianne Feinstein. But such breakthroughs have been few. Oddly lackluster support from school choice advocates, waffling from moderates, and a threatened filibuster have the relevant bill stalled in the Senate--and kids stuck in failing D.C. schools.

Feinstein credits a "personal appeal" from D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, a fellow Democrat, with winning her over. She recently opposed a voucher program in her home state of California, but says the D.C. plan is different because it appropriates $13 million in new federal money instead of dipping into existing school funds. She also emphasized that her support was conditional, since the program is actually a limited, five-year pilot with testing and accountability provisions. Feinstein succeeded in adding an amendment making testing of participants even more stringent, a change that has led some private schools to decide they won't participate in the program, should it go through.

The D.C. voucher program would make available about 1,700 vouchers worth $7,500 each. These "opportunity scholarships" are significantly larger than the vouchers offered in Milwaukee and elsewhere. They also dwarf the maximum of $3,000 offered by the Washington Scholarship Fund, a private scholarship organization.

Even more surprising than Feinstein's support may be the lack of enthusiasm from traditional voucher supporters. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the chairman of the Senate D.C. subcommittee, says that local groups have been doing the heavy lifting. Virginia Walden-Ford, the head of D.C. Parents for School Choice, says "national groups haven't really been here. They haven't been working with us."

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who has long been involved in the school choice movement, disagrees. Norquist says he is "surprised [voucher advocates] are doing as well as they are . . . considering that we don't have an organization in the way that the other side has the National Education Association."

Teachers' unions, long opposed to vouchers, have been running ads in the districts of wavering Democratic senators. And Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting delegate from D.C., has repeatedly emphasized that "a majority of elected officials" in D.C. oppose the vouchers. She says the program is being forced on her city by national Republicans eager to exploit the unique relationship between the federal government and the district.

Nina Rees, of the Department of Education, calls this argument "insulting." She points out that "the mayor, the head of the education committee on the D.C. city council [Kevin Chavous], and the school board president who received more votes than anyone else in the last D.C. election [Peggy Cooper Cafritz] are all asking for this. They have gone out on a limb and endorsed an idea that has not been popular with their parties." In short, she says, "you have three locally elected African-American Democratic officials asking for school choice."

The most prominent is, of course, Mayor Williams, who recently told the Washington Post that over a year ago, he "got up one morning and decided there are a lot of kids getting a crappy education, and we could do better." He has since compared the conditions in D.C. schools to a "natural disaster" and a "slow-moving train wreck."

And Washington parents are clearly on Williams's side. The Washington Scholarship Fund had 7,500 applications in 1998--that number represents more than 17 percent of the district's total school population. Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution says the divide in D.C. is typical of voucher debates nationwide. "Black parents are consistently pro-vouchers. It's the black elites, the NAACP types, that are against vouchers."

But the most important supporter of vouchers these days is President Bush. His original No Child Left Behind plan included $75 million for localities that wanted to experiment with school choice. This provision was ultimately dropped, but Bush pledged to return to the issue. And he has. Bush recently held an event at the KIPP academy in Southeast D.C. where he lobbied for the D.C. voucher plan.

If it has backers as diverse as Bush and Feinstein, why hasn't this bill passed? One moderate senator who's gumming up the works is Republican Arlen Specter, who cast the sole vote against the D.C. appropriations bill in committee. Like 46 percent of congressmen, according to a recent Heritage study, Specter sends his kids to private school. The reason he does so, he has said, is "they didn't have access to a good public school." (Parents in D.C. know exactly how he feels.)