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School Vouchers for D.C.

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Jeanne Allen
President, Center for Education Reform
Friday, January 23, 2004; 2:00 PM

The Senate yesterday approved a $14 million program to allow hundreds of children in the District to attend private schools at taxpayer expense. (D.C. School Vouchers Win Final Approval) President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law which would launch a five-year, federally funded experiment that will place the District at the forefront of the school-choice movement.

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"This is the biggest education accomplishment in this city in 20 years," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, in an interview with The Washington Post.

Allen was online Friday, Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss her pro-stand on the voucher issue.

Requests have been extended to representatives who oppose the school voucher program.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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washingtonpost.com: Jeanne Allen, welcome to washingtonpost.com. Provided President Bush signs the bill, how will the program be implemented?

Jeanne Allen: Thank you. The first thing that we can expect is that the money will be designated or sent to a designated scholarship organization which is likely to be the Washington Scholarship Foundation (WSF). WSF has actually has been the leading distributor of privately funded scholarships in the city and already gives out, I think, more than 2,500 based on need. So once the funds reach that organization they are supposed to put in place a system that complies with the law that identifies which schools will qualify and then announce how many potential slots they might have to give out. The law has enough money for about 1,700 scholarships.

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College Park, Md.: What is the logic behind giving a select few students access to private schools while leaving the majority of students in the same shape in public schools?

Jeanne Allen: That's a good question. Let's start with the fact that this new program is helping only a fraction of those who might really need an benefit from a choice now because they political opposition was so strong it had to be small. Second, it is important to recognize that while this might only be a lifeboat for some, if we can even help those few get a better education then we should. It is no different than getting ten homeless people off the street rather than waiting until we can get all two thousand. Finally, while there are many other really good reasons to do this now, we know from experience in other cities that even a little choice drives improvements in all schools, thereby helping more than just a few.

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Bethesda, Md.: Will students have to reapply each year to attend the private schools? That is, will the students be able to attend the same school for the duration, or will they be changing schools each year?

Jeanne Allen: No, we expect that once a child has been chosen from the lottery to receive the scholarship, that money will be available to help that child complete his or her education at whatever school they choose as long as it complies with the law. Just to remind you, the law requires that the schools participating can demonstrate that they have qualified teachers and that they are willing to test using at least the same standards as the D.C. school system. That is not difficult to do because it already is occurring.

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Albany, N.Y.: I agree this is a huge step for the voucher program and one can only hope it proves to be successful. Why can't voters see through the Democratic party on this issue? The public school systems in many urban areas simply do not work. Yet time and time again the Dems will go to the grave with the teachers unions and the public school system. This is a new idea and we owe it to inner-city students to try something new. The old way is broken and this voucher program is at least a way to try and fix it.

Jeanne Allen: I do think the politics of school choice are important to understand and to change. This should not be a partisan issue and in fact, outside of the Beltway, it is less so a partisan issue. Below the political level parents do not view this as a partisan issue. The disconnect is because there has been a traditional, almost blind alliance between union support and Democratic support. But I do believe that there are many sincere people in the Democratic Party that want to change that reality. This program may be one way to do that.

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Washington, D.C.: Why doesn't the government put that money into making our public schools better, rather than allowing a few kids the chance to run from the implied bad system?

Jeanne Allen: That is a very, very common misconception and one that does -- at face value -- make a lot of sense. But money is not the issue as to why D.C. students score below every other similar state or city. The money is important but only if it's spent on things that make schools work well. The way you do that is you have to give control over the money that we have to people who know how to run schools and how to educate children. What is happening today is that the money that goes to the system is distributed to schools based on numbers of children and geographic patterns but not based on whether or not the programs are working or whether we're helping teaches succeed. So while we need to talk about where money goes and how much we need, simply saying that we need to put more into a system that is already not working for a majority children is not a solution.

It is important to recognize that those who have promoted this voucher bill also believe very strongly in making public schools great, but you have to do a lot of things at once and we have to be willing to expose ourselves and permit families to have a wide variety of opportunities.

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Washington, D.C.: What rights do you think we Washington, D.C. residents should and/or will have in terms of auditing and open records to both the WSF and the scholarship recipient's schools? Will we be able to know as much about the possible waste of those tax dollars as we do about the waste that currently exists in the public schools?

Jeanne Allen: I think that's a question that is really based on a false premise. It is a fact that we don't know anything currently about how funds are spent in traditional public schools and having spent part of the last year trying without success to get information about a number of spending programs, I can say from personal experience that it is next to impossible, even with political help. However, the WSF is a 501c3 non-profit that is required by law to put report its financial health to the IRS which is public knowledge and can be accessed by the press of a button. Parents who choose voluntarily to take a scholarship and go to a school are making their own decision about where the money that is allocated for their children should go. But in DCPS children are required to go to a particular school based on where they live and no one has access to the information about how they spend money. The issue shouldn't be one of financial health over education. We should be concerned about results and be willing to let parents more into that equation.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't understand why people are so against the federal voucher program. None of this money is coming from the D.C. public schools budget, right?

Jeanne Allen: Right. This program is new money and at the same time the District traditional public schools and the District charter schools receive funds as well as the scholarship program. I also want to add on the topic of why this is important that there are many of all political stripes and across races and socio-economic status that believe it is time for us to start moving toward creating systems of schools rather than one school system. In other words, we should realize that the model we have where one system provides almost all of the education for children of very, very different needs and skills does not work as well as maybe it did once. Giving power to people and organizations to create schools to serve children in a more personal way and give parents more choices is where the debate and the action is moving across the country.

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Washington, D.C.: In light of how bad D.C. public schools are, I fully support the voucher program. Why should D.C. politicians (like Jack Evans) be able to send their kids to private schools and the rest of us get stuck with public schools? It seems pretty obvious that the politicians aren't doing anything to fix the system because they have a choice.

Jeanne Allen: I can understand your frustration and have heard that many times, even from parents in the District. It think the real point is that choosing a school for your child should be a right, not a privilege. Those of us who do make choices should work hard for those who don't have the ability to do so. That's our obligation. And there is no "one size fits all" school that fits every child. It is a matter of equity to give opportunities to people to school their children in a manner they see best within a system that has standards and protections but that gives choices nonetheless. We are concerned about that same equity in feeding people, in housing them and we should be as concerned when it comes to education.

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Jeanne Allen: I want to close with a comment about the political opposition that is working right now on ways to stop the program. I really believe it is time for us to get together and for them to put their time and energy into helping the D.C. leadership make this work. It would be benevolent of them; it would be smart politically; and it would show they care about the parents and the leaders who wanted this.

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