A Choice for D.C. Children

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

AMONG THE most maddening arguments used against the D.C. school voucher program is that it hurts the public schools. Any money set aside for vouchers comes on top of a generous federal allocation for the city's public and charter schools. Any effect of the vouchers on public education has yet to be established or studied. Most of all, which members of Congress would accept an argument that they should be forced to send their children to a failing school for the good of the school?

Yet critics repeatedly return to this canard. That's why it's important that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) reiterate to Congress that his school reform efforts will not be helped by depriving 1,900 poor children of an opportunity to choose their schools.

This week, the House Appropriations Committee is set to consider whether to include funds in next year's federal budget for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program, which allows the participating children to attend private schools, dodged a bullet last week when the Appropriations subcommittee headed by Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) wouldn't go along with efforts to dismantle the program. Even though the committee recommended less money than proposed by President Bush, the subcommittee's action, if sustained by Congress, would allow continuation of the program for another crucial year.

While Mr. Serrano voiced doubts about vouchers, he wisely deferred to the District's leaders and their "right . . . to make these choices." Members of the full committee, including a number of Washington area representatives who well understand the importance of D.C. home rule, should follow Mr. Serrano's lead in abiding by the city's intent. Joining Mr. Fenty in his support of the vouchers are leaders as disparate as D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and former mayor Anthony A. Williams. Notwithstanding the objections of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), there is widespread local support for the vouchers. Indeed, demand is reflected in the number of children who are on waiting lists. Continuation of this very limited, local program hurts no one. But its elimination would profoundly affect poor and minority children. Is that a choice Congress really wants to make?


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