Here he sits -- the villain. To listen to as varied a cast as the mayor and the League of Women Voters, he is the head of a monster that would ravage little children by destroying the District's public schools. And for what? To help conservatives start a national tuition tax credit movement, it is whispered, by getting a version of it approved in Washington, a mostly black city, so critics can't claim that the tax credits are a tool of white segregationists.
The man accused of being this villanous stooge is William Augustus Keyes, a 27-year-old black Republican and an economist working for Congress. He is head of a committee that has put the question of education tax credits on the District's November ballot. Keyes, who comes across as a quick-witted, ambitious professional -- nobody's stooge -- laughs at the personal attacks on him and his drive. He thinks they are proof that he has the city's bit shots trembling.
"Look at Arrington Dixon," says Keyes of the city council chairman who heads the main group opposing the tax credits. "He's an easy target for me to shoot at. He says we can make the public schools work with more commitment, and that it is important to the community to make the public schools work. But he has kids in private schools. He's selfish. Obviously, he's made the decision that private schools are better.
"It's all right for his kids to have the best education, but not for my kids. . . . My kids should have their school controlled by the crowd at the District building, but not his kids. . . ."
Keyes knows that point won't be lost on voters. It is not the only ace he has in hand:
1. Dixon, Mayor Barry and the school system have no good ideas for making the schools very good any time soon, Keyes says, so why not let the people with the most at stake, the parents, have more financial control? Let the parents try to improve the schools. To parents who have watched politicians use the school board to better their careers and to stage a comedy at the expense of their children's education, Keyes' offer of power over the schools sounds very appealing.
"They [the politicians] don't want my money for the schools," Keyes says.
"They don't want your money or J. Willard Marriott's money. You or I or Marriott might demand something for our money -- like having them make the schools work. No, they want Congress' money because the Congress demands nothing. The Congress doesn't have kids in public school. And the District building crowd can use Congress as a scapegoat. When someone says they want better schools, the District building crowd shouts, 'Oh, if Congress would give us more money.'"
2. The people who really want to leave the District public schools are already gone, Keyes says. The tax credit will help very few people afford to get out.
3. The education tax credit allows credit for private school tuition and for books, special classes or more teachers for public school children.
Parents who don't earn enough money to get the full credit can ask other people and even businesses to donate their tax credit money to the schools. "Parents of children in private schools will get some relief," says Keyes, "but the public schools stand to benefit the most."
Keyes, whose wife is expecting a child in September -- a child, he says, who will go to his neighborhood school, Peabody on Capitol Hill -- shrugs off the racial implications of the tax credit idea. "This is not 1954," he says. "This is not even 1964. This is not North Carolina or Birmingham or Little Rock with whites opening private academies to avoid integration. This is Washington, D.C., with 70 percent black people and 90 percent blacks in the public schools. People are not going to flee the public schools to avoid blacks with this thing [the tax credit]."
Nevertheless, Keyes cannot deny that some money would leave the treasury to help out the city's mostly white private schools and that the money may be taken from the budget for the mostly black public schools. His response is that the city budget increases yearly, through inflation -- enough to absorb that loss -- and that city poiliticians who "give away downtown development to their friends" cost the city more money than his referendum would.
It is not an adequate response, especially when the school system is already strapped for money and the city is in a financial crisis.No matter what mismanagement of city finances is taking place, the tax credits will cost money, and the city's politicians are likely to take it out of the public school budget to try to force angry parents to repeal the referendum.
There is a second major weakness in Keyes' position. He argues that the tax credit would give parents more power over how public schools are run. But he cannot answer the question of what alternative the parents will have if they don't get their way in a public school and want to spend their $1,200 elswhere. That is not enough to pay private tuition, and parochial schools are overcrowded. Would there be a raft of new schools opening, claiming to be able to teach children for $1,200, but having no record behind them, no guarantee that they are not out for the money alone?
Opponents so far have not addressed these weaknesses. Instead, they argue over whether Keyes has lived in the city long enough (four years); who notarized the petitions for the referendum; whether the people who collected the signatures were District residents, and on and on. They seem afraid to argue the issue.
"It doesn't matter what they say about me or how we got the petitions signed," says Keyes. "It comes down to how the man on the street corner, who wants a better life for his son than he had for himself, sees it. If he thinks the referendum will get his son a better education, then he is going to vote yes."