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Candidates Touch On D.C. Schools

Rhee's Reforms Raise Questions of Vouchers vs. Charters

Schools chief Michelle A. Rhee
Schools chief Michelle A. Rhee (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008; Page A04

Education reform, largely a footnote in the presidential campaign, emerged at the tail end of last night's debate in a brief exchange between the candidates over whether D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee supports vouchers or charter schools.

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Rhee has not taken a formal position on vouchers but has been generally supportive of school choice. She told the Wall Street Journal this year that she would "never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent's ability to make a choice for their child. Ever."

Spokeswoman Dena Iverson said in a statement that Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) "strongly believe that all families in the District of Columbia must have access to excellent public school options." But the chancellor "disagrees with the notion that vouchers are the remedy for repairing the city's school system," Iverson said.

Charters are the more dominant feature of D.C. school reform, growing over the past 10 years to include almost a third of the city's public school enrollment. More than 60 schools are spread across 90 campuses with a projected 26,000 students this academic year.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was passed by a Republican-led Congress in 2004 to place the District at the leading edge of the private school choice movement. It has awarded scholarships to 1,903 children from low-income families, granting as much as $7,500 a year for tuition and fees at participating schools.

In arguing the merits of charters vs. vouchers, the candidates mentioned the dysfunctional state of the D.C. school system. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who opposes vouchers and supports charters, said the system "is in terrible shape, and it has been for a very long time. We've got a wonderful new superintendent there who's working very hard with the young mayor there."

"Who supports vouchers," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"Who initiated, actually supports charters," Obama said. Despite his praise, Rhee, who was appointed by Fenty, an ardent Obama supporter, has criticized Obama for his lack of support for the federal No Child Left Behind law, which Rhee supports. At events this year, she has said that McCain has been the stronger candidate on education issues.


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