Choices for D.C. Parents

By Marion Barry
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

As a former mayor of the District of Columbia and a current member of the D.C. Council, I've seen the city's schools deteriorate by any measure you can think of. Our system has become one of the nation's worst in terms of educating children.

Mayor Adrian Fenty, Chancellor Michelle Rhee and others are aggressively tackling the problems facing D.C. schools. They are pushing for real change. I fully support the rapid transformation of our public school system into one of the best in the world. It's hard work, and we won't agree at every step of the way. But we do agree on the importance of the proposed investments in District public schools, public charter schools and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to the effort to reform our schools.

To fix our schools, we have a responsibility not just to talk but to act. That's why I'm joining those firmly in favor of the package of federal money for D.C. schools that Mayor Fenty proposed and that President Bush included in his budget. If Congress approves this package, the District will get $74 million in fiscal 2009 for our public schools, public charter schools and scholarships, so that our lowest-income residents can attend private schools that their parents choose. I want Congress to know that the District's leaders support this package.

I know it may surprise some that I would support a school voucher program, but I am proud to do so -- and I especially support the D.C. scholarships. Many here in Washington also favor this program: community and business leaders, educators, parents, and elected officials who are putting children first. I would oppose this voucher program if it took money from the D.C. public schools, but it doesn't.

I support this package because it provides much-needed financial support to all D.C. schools and because it offers parents a choice without hurting public schools. That's a win-win situation. We must make sure that children in the District are given every chance to attend schools that work for them. To do anything else is wrong.

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles and other guardians in my community tell me that these programs are making a difference in their children's lives and giving them hope they have never had. I salute them for working to make the right choices for their children. In March, I held a community meeting at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, where several families whose children have scholarships told me how much the program has done for them. One mom, Wanda Gaddis, has worked for a long time, including serving as a parent advocate at her daughter's public elementary school, to make sure her daughter gets a great education. At the meeting, I learned that her daughter is attending a private school in Ward 8 through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Gaddis told me, "The schools in D.C. were not educating my child. At first I did not have a choice, but I am so thankful that I and so many other parents did get choice with the Opportunity Scholarship Program. I can't begin to tell you how much my child's education has improved since starting with this program. It is a program that is helping to educate our children so they can have better, more productive lives and in turn create better communities here in Ward 8 and across D.C."

I am a father and understand how parents want and need to choose what's best for their children. When my son, Christopher, was entering fourth grade, my wife and I had to decide where he would go. We had enough money to send him to a private school and had the option of doing that, sending him to our neighborhood school or sending him to an out-of-boundary school. We chose to send him to Murch, in Upper Northwest, even though we lived in Southeast.

Over the years, Christopher went to public schools, and I am grateful that we could choose the right environment for him. I was fortunate that I could afford the right school for my son. As I have been in years past, I am focused today on those who most need help. We need to give the same opportunity to the District's low-income parents, and this package would help ensure that all parents in our city have choices about where their children attend school.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Ward 8 on the D.C. Council. He was mayor of the District from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999.

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