Real Choices for D.C. Students

By Eleanor Holmes Norton
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I believe we can get beyond the controversy and recrimination concerning the controversial D.C. School Choice Incentive Act. Like most Americans, District residents and public officials, including me, opposed public funds for private schools when the act was passed by Congress as a five-year pilot program. But the question before Congress now, as that five-year period comes to an end, is what to do about specific children in the D.C. Scholarship Opportunity Program.

Far from conducting a "campaign" to cut off funding, as The Post alleges [editorial, June 12], I have asked that there be no cutoff at the end of the pilot program, which would leave these children rudderless, and for a plan for the children's education in case funding does not continue. This goal was reinforced when I met recently with the parents. The Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF) had not told many of them that the program had a limited term and was scheduled to end after five years.

Moreover, when Democrats took control of Congress last year, I declined requests to sponsor a bill to end the program. Voucher opponents cited the inclusion of many students over the program's family income limits, awards to many others that were not made on a random basis, and tuition being granted to some students who were already attending private schools. These and other violations, they said, will make it nearly impossible to study comparable groups of low-income students in the lowest-performing public schools and scholarship program students, which was the stated purpose of the legislation.

Appropriations are funded only on an annual basis. Reauthorization of so controversial a bill, reenacting the struggle of five years ago, would be unlikely to reach the House floor. Republicans passed the program by just one vote, and only after the vote was held open for 40 minutes (probably a response to polls and to the overwhelming defeat of similar proposals in dozens of state referendums).

But whatever Congress decides, surely the private and public sectors working together can develop a plan to satisfy a finite group of children. The Washington Scholarship Fund, which has administered the pilot program, was funding more than a thousand scholarships without federal dollars when it came to Congress in 2003 to urge approval of this program. This and other private funding could be reactivated. Long ago, I offered to help the WSF in this effort, as I also did in a meeting with Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington.

Further, this city owes more than it can repay to the Catholic schools that have remained in this largely Protestant town rather than following their parishioners to the suburbs. Not surprisingly, the church can no longer support all its schools. Another 1,000 children might be without schools if the D.C. Public Charter School Board rejects a proposal to convert several Catholic schools to nonreligious public charters. With these children would come underutilized buildings, opening the exciting possibility of also housing other charters that have long waiting lists for enrollment and are chronically short of space.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich appointed a task force that worked with me and District officials and residents on the legislation that is largely responsible for the spectacular growth of D.C.'s independent public charter schools. The Catholic schools have saved the District far more in population retained and in tax revenue than the city could repay. The estimated $14 million in necessary funds for converting Catholic schools to charters is surely doable this year by Congress, the District or both. Moreover, I will introduce a bill this week -- one that I believe will quickly pass -- making the Charter Board, initially set up by Congress, subject to the home rule jurisdiction of the D.C. government.

I believe that poorly performing public school systems have an obligation to fund public alternatives. Children cannot suspend their education while adults "turn around" the schools, and in any event I know of no place where an entire school system has experienced such a turnaround.

In 2003, I urged funding for charters instead of private schools because they had become the popular District alternative of choice. Public charters are accountable, provided jurisdictions conduct the proper oversight. They present no church-state issues. Charter parents report the same satisfaction as the parents whose children are in the WSF program, and some reports indicate charter schools are outperforming the D.C. Public Schools. Two of my recent appointments to the nation's very selective military academies are charter school graduates.

The charter conversion proposal comes at a critical time for many D.C. families. Some of the WSF children attend these schools and could choose this alternative. With all of us working together, a solution can be found in a combination of WSF and public and private funding to benefit these children, and in expanded charter opportunities for them and many others.

The writer, a Democrat, is the District of Columbia's representative in Congress.

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