The D.C. public schools are dreadful.

According to the Cato Institute, in 13 of 19 city high schools, 90 percent of students read at the "basic" or "below basic" level. In 14 of 19 high schools, 90 percent of students are unable to perform math above the basic level. Yet more than 80 percent of D.C. high school students are promoted.

Despite the expenditure of $10,500 per pupil -- one of the highest rates in the nation -- D.C. students rank near the bottom on national tests. The system lacks qualified teachers, safe facilities and even basic supplies such as pencils and textbooks.

Yet on this issue, the District's Democrats do not believe in the right to choose.


Maybe because almost all political contributions from opponents of school choice -- including the American Federation of Teachers (the parent organization of the Washington Teachers' Union, recently in the news because of alleged embezzlement by its president) and the National Education Association -- go to Democratic candidates.

Ironically, some of the same liberals who oppose school choice send their own kids to private schools -- with a straight face.

Meanwhile, in 2001, a conservative, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), announced that he would offer an amendment to a bill called Educational Choices for Disadvantaged Children, which would have created a $25 million fund for school vouchers. After a barrage of criticism from liberal D.C. politicians, he withdrew the bill.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, with a straight face, called McCain's plan "a disservice to the high standards of education accountability for every child the District of Columbia has set for itself." In 1998, President Clinton struck down a similar bill proposed by Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

But out of the madness comes sanity. In his fiscal 2004 budget proposal, President Bush allocates a portion of the $756 million for school choice programs to a pilot school voucher plan for the District. Norton reportedly is "shocked and disappointed." But after years of being cheated and neglected by money-hungry pen pushers, black students in the nation's capital may finally have educational options.

How desperately do the District's parents want to get their children out of the failing school system?

Every year thousands of low-income students apply for 100 scholarships offered by the Washington Scholarship Fund, which gives students partial scholarships to private schools.

A lottery approved by the D.C. school board in December will allow a certain percentage of parents to enroll their children in schools outside their neighborhood boundaries. Parents have been known to camp for days outside the school of their choice to apply for a slot for their child.

Other black families are turning to home schooling, which is no longer seen as solely a religious movement. Of the 1.7 million children home-schooled last year, nearly 5 percent were black. According to the National Home Educators Research Institute, about 85,000 black children are home-schooled. The biggest increase in home schooling has been in Prince George's County, the largest and wealthiest majority-black county in the country. Black parents cite the lack of strong moral values in public schools as one reason they opt to home-school.

In 1963, George "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" Wallace, then the governor of Alabama, stood in the door of the state university to prevent black students from entering. In 2003, the District's liberal leaders stand in the doors of deteriorating public schools to prevent black students from escaping. Forty years ago, Democrats couldn't care less about the education of black students.

Forty years later, they still don't.

-- La Shawn Barber

is a columnist for,

which promotes conservative public policy.