District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act

Commentary by Pete du Pont

By vetoing the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act, President Clinton rebuffed members of his own party and thwarted the hopes of thousands of District of Columbia parents. He told them and their children to suffer in silence in Washington's terrible public schools.

The president, who sent his own daughter to a private school, told families who wanted a better education for their own children that they couldn't have it.

The bipartisan Scholarship Act was sponsored by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.), and Senators Dan Coats (R-Ind), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan). It would provide scholarships of up to $3,200 a year for 2,000 D.C. students whose families' incomes are above the poverty level but below 185 percent of poverty. Eligible families would receive the lesser of 75 percent of the tuition for the school they choose, or $2,400. With the vouchers, families could put their children in private or charter schools of their choice, religious or nonsectarian, in the D.C. area.

The bill's supporters have evidence from the Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs that students who switch from public to private schools do better. Coming from the Washington schools, improvement wouldn't be hard. A Washington Post series last year reported that standardized test scores in reading and math were far below national averages, that students were routinely promoted whether they had learned anything or not, and that 85 percent of District school graduates who enter the University of the District of Columbia require two years of remedial education. For this, the District spent about $8,290 per student in 1994-95 according to the National Center for Education Statistics, well above the national average of $5,600.

Backers of the bill also know there won't be any trouble finding takers. A survey of District residents found that 59 percent of low-income residents polled supported school choice while only 17 percent opposed it. Last year, the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund put up $6 million for 1,000 scholarships to children from low-income families. Over 7,500 people applied -- about one-tenth of the entire student population.

What, then, are opponents of choice afraid of? Surely not the old canard that vouchers violate the separation of church and state. The Supreme Court has already ruled that if the choice is made by the parents, not the government, and that if the use of vouchers doesn't create an incentive to attend private religious schools or bring government into the schools' activities, the wall of separation isn't breached. In any event, no one complained when G.I. Bill money was used by veterans to attend private schools.

And surely the anti-choice forces won't rely on the preposterous claim that private schools will simply grab the best and brightest students for their own. Schools don't choose the students; parents choose the best and brightest schools. If they don't like the education their children get, they're free to move somewhere else -- unlike the parents whose children are trapped in the often unsafe, frequently deteriorating Washington schools.

No, I take the anti-choice people at their word, in this case the words of Secretary of Education Richard Riley: "If a school is failing, the solution isn't to give scholarships to 50 children and leave 500 behind, but to fix the problem, fix the whole school." Which is like telling the passengers on a sinking ship, "Since we only have 50 life preservers and 500 people, we've decided to let you all drown" . Meanwhile, neither Riley nor anyone else has made the D.C. schools better, for all the talk, the money and the top-heavy bureaucracy that employs one central office administrator for every 20 teachers (national public school average, one for 38).

Opposition to choice can be reduced to two arguments. The first is that of educrats and teachers' unions, who fear parents will choose excellence over the status quo, and inject competition into the educational marketplace. In that vibrant and exhilarating struggle, some of them may lose their jobs. But I can at least understand their fears, even if I can't sympathize with them.

What I can't understand is the opposition of politicians who, because of their own status and income, take advantage of the full range of educational possibilities for their own children, then deny it to the citizens who live only a mile away; who condemn the children of poor people to a substandard education and the ignorance and poverty and almost inevitably follow it, while blathering on about fairness and the public good. The public good is best served by giving people the most freedom. It should start with educational choice.