T he great thing about Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of Washington's school board, is her brutal honesty, her ability to shock jaded citizens into outrage. How many elected officials say things like this: "The reason we have so many special education students is you have children who have no father and they go home to a mother who's on the couch eating potato chips and she pays no attention to the child, and he comes back to school and he wants attention, so he acts out."

Or this: "I look at how these kids have been screwed, and it's criminal."

But Cafritz repeatedly settles for startling the city with words rather than inspiring us with deeds.

Instead of making good on early pledges to slash union control over schools and lure better teachers by exempting them from city income taxes, Cafritz now tells us that, despite her years of strenuous opposition to the idea, she believes vouchers are coming to Washington courtesy of our congressional overseers, and we might as well lean back and enjoy it.

On her Web site this week, you could still find Cafritz's essay comparing proponents of vouchers to the Greek Sirens who used song to lure mariners to their deaths on jagged rocks. Vouchers, she wrote, "bamboozle parents" into thinking their kids will get into fancy private schools, when the reality is that only Catholic schools would accept a meaningful number of vouchers in lieu of tuition. During last fall's campaign, Cafritz took her stand: "Voucher programs falsely raise the hopes of low-income families and circumvent the Constitution by funding religious schools."

Now, in a Post op-ed piece, Cafritz flips: "We should join the U.S. Department of Education in forging a system that includes vouchers, charter schools and public schools."

What happened? Cafritz saw the polling on the wall. The vouchers movement, initiated by white conservatives, has spent heavily to win support from urban black parents fed up with empty promises of reform. The campaign has succeeded -- a poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found 57 percent of blacks in favor of vouchers (that jumps to 75 percent among blacks under 35).

School choice is already here in the form of charter schools, which occupy a middle ground between the public system and direct government support of parochial schools. Charters are public institutions run on public money, but administered by private groups. Charters must take all comers, while vouchers let private schools choose whomever they want -- on the taxpayers' buck. Charters vary in quality but include excellent programs -- without vouchers' constitutional problems.

But charters aren't enough for the most zealous reformers, whose real goal is state support of religious schooling. Once again, the District is where congressional extremists ram through ideas that can't win popular approval through legitimate means.

The best response to high jinks on the Hill, however, is not craven submission but a demonstration that the District can run its own affairs.

Are vouchers the answer? The superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington obviously supports vouchers, but Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill concedes that even with federal support, the city's 31 Catholic schools would expand beyond their current 8,000 students by adding only 1,200 children to existing facilities.

"The track record of voucher programs in other cities is that there's been much more demand than they've been able to meet," Weitzel-O'Neill says. Even at the Catholic system's top capacity, the number of kids who would benefit from vouchers would be less than one-tenth the number now enrolled in the city's charter schools.

Obviously, many parents want to take advantage of Catholic schools. And vouchers would let those schools admit more poor kids (though half the students in Catholic schools come from families living below the poverty line).

In a fundraising paper, the archdiocese says it educates non-Catholic, inner-city children because, "Through our schools, we have the opportunity to offer the love of God and knowledge of the Catholic faith." That's their right, and it's something many parents cherish. But it's no place for tax dollars to go.

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