Standing in the Way of Educational Choice

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Let's talk bluntly, shall we? Education in our nation's capitol is a disgrace. Washington, D.C., has about 80,000 elementary and secondary students, but only a little more than half of them will graduate. Tests show that District students are increasingly falling behind other children around the country.

Is the problem just a lack of money? Hardly. The District spends about $6,300 annually -- some estimates place it at about $7,500 -- on each student, well above the national average of $5,600 per student. Yet building repairs go uncompleted and sometimes students even begin the school year without textbooks.

Worse yet, these children are often forced to attend public schools that have become war zones for gangs and retail outlets for drug pushers.

Obviously, parents of these children would like a way out of this situation. Unfortunately, low-income parents usually don't have that option. By the time they've paid the tax man, the landlord and the grocer, there's not enough left to put their children into private schools -- even if it means watching them sink in an educational abyss that guarantees they will be unable to read, write or think in a world that puts a financial premium on those who can.

The good news is that House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), along with Rep. William Lipinski (D-IL) and Senators Dan Coats (R-IN), Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), have introduced legislation to rectify this situation. Their "District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act" would provide scholarships of up to $3,200 a year for some 2,000 students whose family incomes are above the poverty level but below 185 percent of poverty -- between about $16,000 and $29,600 for a family of four. Eligible families would receive the lesser of 75 percent of the tuition for the school they chose, or $2,400. With these vouchers, families could put their children in the private or charter schools of their choice.

Would any low-income families in the District find this an attractive offer? We already have the answer. A couple of private sector donors, who have been interested in trying to help low-income children have educational choice, put up $6 million last year to provide 1,000 scholarships in Washington, D.C. Their program received 7,573 applications over the period of just a few months; one in every six eligible students applied.

Those are families who want a better life for their children. Sadly, there are people who don't want to let them have it. President Clinton is one of them. While he could afford to send his daughter, Chelsea, to one of the most expensive private schools in the country, he does not want to allow low-income children to have a similar opportunity.

And then there is Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. He also opposes vouchers: "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." In other words, if you can't give everyone a better education, make sure nobody gets one.

Secretary Riley has had the opportunity to fix low-performing public schools and they are still broken. If he really thinks it's unfair to provide opportunity scholarships for a small portion of District children, then why doesn't he propose giving all the children a voucher? I'm almost certain that Majority Leader Armey and other backers of the bill would be willing to expand their proposal -- and perhaps finance it from some of those expensive and useless programs that Mr. Riley oversees in the Department of Education.

The truth is that a voucher proposal is not much different than the G.I. Bill that has been so effective in giving veterans the ability to go to college. Qualified veterans chose the college, public or private, and the G.I. Bill helped them pay their tuition.

No one claims that the G.I. Bill undermined public universities in America. And, incidentally, a lot of veterans chose public universities -- because those schools met their needs for scholarship, proximity to job or family or other factors.

President Clinton and his administration have had more than five years to do something about the deplorable state of education in our nation's capitol, as well as other low-performing, inner-city schools around the country. In that time we have lost another half-generation to ignorance and poverty.

Along comes a bipartisan collection of Congressmen who are willing and able to do something, and the administration can do nothing but attack the proposal. We may not save all our children with educational vouchers, but we can certainly save some of them.

That's what low-income parents want. That's what minorities want. That's what the children want. Failing to give them that option is a national tragedy.