An Issue for National Greatness

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Looking back, the true story of John McCain's appeal in Campaign 2000 was his call to a "cause larger than one's self interest." After two terms of Clintonian self-indulgence, the electorate yearned for a return to patriotism and politics that was more than petty disagreements and bean counting policy proposals. McCain seemed to be the perfect candidate for this cause, a war hero with a bombastic straight talk demeanor in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt. Yet something was missing.

Unfortunately for McCain, his campaign lacked an issue more fitting of the patriotic charge for national greatness than an argument over the mechanics of electing public servants. It now appears that he may have found such an issue - school choice.

As the Congress works with the White House on an education bill that doesn't include the choice initiative the president campaigned on, McCain has proposed an amendment to create a school choice pilot program for the nation's capitol - home to some of the worst schools in the country. McCain framed the issue this way: "We have a moral obligation, to explore all options to see what works and what doesn't work when it comes to educating the future of our nation. Too many kids are trapped in failing schools and that's unacceptable for a nation as great as ours."

The amendment proposed by McCain would create a four-year pilot program targeted at children from low-income households in the District of Columbia and would do so without diverting a dime from the public schools. Under the program, tuition vouchers for $2,000 would be provided through a lottery system to children from low-income families in the lowest academic performing schools for use at the school of their choice, including private or religious schools. To be eligible for the program, the children have to be enrolled in a public school that is performing at or below the bottom 25th percentile academically in the District, and their family's income must be equal to or less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.

The General Accounting Office would be responsible for conducting an evaluation of this school choice demonstration assessing the effect of the choice program on participants, schools and the DC community as well as evaluating and comparing the academic achievements of participating and non participating children.

While this is a step in the right direction, the pilot program suggested by McCain is too small and too limited to offer a real test of choice, or to offer real hope to the children of the District. First of all, even if it is targeted to just one community for demonstration purposes, McCain should open the program to all the District's children in failing schools. If we truly have a "moral obligation" to rescue children in failing schools, than we cannot make a child's future dependent on winning a lottery.

Second, the amount of the voucher should be raised significantly from the current $2,000 figure. While I would be the last one to argue that more money automatically equals better results (if it did D.C. would have some of the best schools in the country instead of some of the worst), the vouchers should be brought on par with the amount we currently spend to educate them in the Washington public schools - about $8,000 per student per year. That would be enough to fund tuition at almost any private school.

Third; to finance a voucher of that magnitude, the funding should follow President Bush's idea for Title I funds - have them tied to the students, not to the school they happen to attend. This would also fix another flaw of McCain's plan, namely that his proposal would not take any money away from the public schools. While this may deflect some criticism from the teachers unions, it would eliminate one of the primary reasons for school choice - to make schools accountable for failure. If schools continue to receive funds for students they are no longer teaching, they are not being given any reason to change.

Nevertheless, McCain's school choice idea has the opportunity to provide a testing ground for school choice, in a place difficult for Congress and the national media to ignore. If successful, it can provide the opening school choice supporters need to expand the idea nationally. There's no issue more important for continuing America's national greatness long into the future.