A Lesson In Government: Vouchers For Washington D.C.

Commentary by Pete du Pont

A pessimistic philosopher once gloomily opined that life was but a long march through hostile territory. Surely this week both the children of the District of Columbia and conservative Republican congressmen must agree.

The hostility of the D.C. school system to safety, learning, and opportunity will continue because of the hostility of a handful of liberal Republican Senators to the idea of school choice.

Working with District officials, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Steve Gundersen (R-Wisc.) passed in the House a plan that allows $3,000 scholarships to help low-income D.C. children attend the school -- public or private, religious or not -- of their choice. The Senate, which has spent most of 1995 showing it did not hear the verdict of the 1994 elections, did not include the scholarship provisions in its D.C. appropriations legislation. The House-Senate conference to reconcile the differing legislation decided at the insistence of Sen. James Jeffords (R- Vt.) to strip the voucher plan (along with other education reforms) from the legislation.

The D.C. school voucher argument presents a plateful of ironies. Sen. Jeffords, the leading opponent of individualized education, represents the only state in the nation with a school voucher plan. Vermont has had one for 125 years. Sen. Jeffords "fully supports" the Vermont program, but cannot support the same opportunity for low-income kids in Washington.

A second irony is that members of Congress, Clinton cabinet secretaries and D.C. teachers have the financial wherewithal to send their children to the school of their choice, yet a few Republican moderates (and likely Senate Democrats as well) want to deny the same opportunity to the parents of D.C. kids.

The House debate on vouchers provided the American people with a striking contrast between the conservative members of Congress who thought of education in terms of children, and liberals who think of the teachers union, the school administrators, and the D.C. bureaucrats whose lives would be disrupted by school choice.

Congressional liberals dusted off the old anti-choice bromides. They said vouchers that would allow some students to attend religious schools would be a violation of our constitutional separation of church and state. Never mind the fact that the state would be giving the money notto schools, but to parents and students, (Question: Does a Social Security check donated to a church violate the separation?) allowing them to exercise their own free choice as to where they would like to attend school. The G.I. Bill is perhaps the best example of a voucher plan that helped ten million young Americans gain a college education at the higher education institution of their choice, religious or not.

The liberals argued that allowing certain students to escape -- an odd choice of words to describe a choice of schools -- from the dismal D.C. public schools would be unfair to the children who chose to stay. But the current system is cheating all students. What better place to push for student choice than in the schools of Washington, D.C., a system that graduates but 60% of its students, consistently scores at the bottom of the nation in student proficiency tests, and achieves this low performance while spending more per pupil (around $9,000) than all but two states.

Some members of Congress called for more debate before changes were made. Never mind the fact that the children in the District's failed public schools are sitting in those schools now, suffering today from an education that is the worst in the nation, dooming many students to a lifetime of lost opportunities. Five years after the state of New Jersey took over the Jersey City schools, educational performance was still deemed "unacceptable." The Congress, by failing to enact school choice vouchers, has extended to D.C. children the same opportunity for continued school failure and lack of a sound education. So what is there to debate?

Finally, those on the liberal side of this debate raised the issue of money. But if money were the solution, the children of the District would be sitting today in the best schools in the nation.

In the end, choice in education will prevail, for the individualization of opportunity created by the information age is sweeping the globe. Meanwhile, the question remains whether the forces of change unleashed in Washington will prevail in their struggle to free D.C.'s children from a life of missed opportunity. And will moderate Senate Republicans continue to ignore mandate of the 1994 election, and walk away from vouchers -- and the children they are intended to save? Stay tuned.