It's Time to Accept the Reality That the D.C. School Voucher Movement Has Hit a Dead End

By Jay Mathews
Monday, March 23, 2009

I'm not trying to be a hypocrite. I have supported D.C. school vouchers. The program has used tax dollars well in transferring impoverished students to private schools with higher standards than D.C. public schools. But it has reached a dead end. Congress should fund the 1,713 current voucher recipients until they graduate from high school but stop new enrollments and find a more promising use of the money.

That exasperation you hear is from my friend and former boss, the brilliant Washington Post editorial writer who has been eviscerating Democrats in Congress for trying to kill D.C. vouchers. We don't identify the authors of our unsigned editorials, but her in-your-face style is unmistakable and her arguments morally unassailable.

My problems with what is formally known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program are political and cultural, not moral. The program provides up to $7,500 a year for private-school tuition for poor children at an annual cost of about $12 million. Vouchers help such kids, but not enough of them. The vouchers are too at odds with the general public view of education. They don't have much of a future.

A few years ago, I debated this issue with Robert Enlow, president and chief executive of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He argued that students from low-income homes would benefit greatly if more of them had vouchers. I said I agreed. I said I also thought my tennis game would be several notches higher than its sorry state if I practiced occasionally. Unfortunately, because of strong voter preferences for public schools and my own congenital laziness, neither is going to happen.

Voters have rejected voucher plans every time they have appeared on state ballots. The margin against them was 2 to 1 in California and Michigan in 2000. Conservatives, who tend to support vouchers as a way to rescue education from government control, thought their voucher proposal might win in heavily Republican Utah in 2007. But even there, the discomfort with tax money going to private schools brought defeat, 62 to 38 percent.

Even if we had unlimited funds for voucher students, there would not be enough spaces in private schools for them. Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, father of the voucher movement, argued that once people saw how well his idea worked, voters would endorse it, more private schools catering to vouchers would be started and public schools, because of the intense competition, would improve.

States have been voting on voucher plans for more than a generation. No such groundswell has materialized. I don't think it is going to happen, at least not soon enough to help the millions of children who need and deserve better schools now.

If Congress has any sense, it won't cut off D.C. kids enrolled in the voucher program. Four years ago, a determined mother, Nikia Hammond, allowed me to spend a day with her and her four children as they rode by Metrobus, one hour each way, from her public-housing townhouse in Southeast Washington to the private Nannie Helen Burroughs School in Northeast. The $18,000 the program paid each year to educate Zackia, Asia, Ronald and London was more than their mother's salary as a store clerk in Pentagon City. But the teachers were more enthusiastic, the disciplinary problems fewer and the classes smaller than in public schools they had attended, and they were learning more. The two older children have graduated from Nannie Burroughs, but all four are receiving benefits from the program. Telling them to find other schools would be a bad idea.

Congress should make sure that the saved voucher money is well spent. Regular public schools showing significant achievement gains, including several doing well under D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's innovations, need funds to keep improving. Unspent voucher dollars can also go to charter schools, which are independent public schools available to all students, not just those who qualify for vouchers.

Charter growth is soaring, with more than 1.3 million students enrolled in such public schools. The best charter schools, particularly in the District, are showing gains beyond what even the best public or private schools have done. President Obama wants states and the District to lift limits on charter growth. More money would help. He also wants low-performing charters to be closed, something easier to do than closing a low-performing private school full of voucher students.

The D.C. voucher program is a noble experiment. If it is hypocrisy to want to discontinue it, I'll accept the label. We need money for programs that will help the most children. This nation of public school backers just won't go for vouchers.


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