A plan proposed by President Bush, and developed with the support and guidance of prominent District of Columbia leaders, would offer up to $7,500 to low-income Washington, DC parents to choose a school for their children. Recent surveys have found that almost half the District’s private schools educate children for that amount or less; therefore, it is expected that up to 2,000 students will be able to take advantage of this new opportunity.
But the greatest benefit will be the spark the plan will provide to improve all DC public schools. In 2001, 36 percent of DC public students scored “Below Basic” in mathematics on the Stanford 9 achievement test. In reading, 25 percent scored “Below Basic.” In more than two-thirds of District high schools, 90 percent of students tested at levels of either Basic or Below Basic in both reading and math, according to a Cato Institute study.
During the past school year, a project of the Annenberg Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts asked DC public school children to say how they felt about their schools. Many described decaying buildings, rat and roach infestations, leaky ceilings, and broken windows. Others told of feeling unsafe due to gang activity, disciplinary problems, and weapons. Still others talked about textbook shortages and teachers “never showing up for work.” Those conditions certainly do not describe every DC public school. But the President’s plan would give priority to children in the District’s worst schools, thereby encouraging change where it is needed most. A recent Manhattan Institute study showed that Florida’s voucher program has generated the biggest improvements in failing schools most directly affected by the potential loss of voucher students.
This summer, the President of the DC School Board, along with the Mayor and the chairman of the city council’s education committee (all of whom are Democrats) endorsed President Bush’s school choice plan for DC children. They worked with Administration officials and helped design the program to maximize its benefits for District families and communities.
A high demand for private and parochial educations is a well-documented fact of life in metropolitan Washington. Poor families should be able to avail themselves of these same opportunities for their children, especially when their neighborhood public schools offer so little. For these parents and children, these new options, paid for with new federal money, could not arrive at a better time.
“There is no force in the universe more powerful, as far as school change is concerned, than an informed parent with options,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige commented earlier this summer. As the school accountability measures in the No Child Left Behind Act continue to take effect, parents across the nation will be more informed than ever before about their children’s schools. And in DC, which has farther to go than most communities to uplift education, vouchers will give once-powerless parents an extra measure of clout.
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