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"The scene in the Committee room was pretty amazing. I have not seen anything like it on the Hill before. On one side of the seating area in the Committee room were opponents of D.C. school choice, all wearing stickers saying "Stop DC Vouchers" handed out by a representative of the People for the American Way. Ninety-nine percent of the voucher opponents were white. On the other side of the room were supporters of vouchers. They were all black, mostly women and children, wearing DC school choice t-shirts." -- From Capital Hillblogger
The District of Columbia is ground zero for school choice. All forces converge there. The District is home to the United States Department of Education, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers. The problem is very real there. The Districts' students scored lower than all 50 states. Seventy-two percent of black D.C. students read at below basic level. The battle is dramatic and passionate. Congress is debating funding of a pilot school voucher programs - only $75 million spread around the nation's troubled school districts; the District of Columbia would receive $15 million.
The debate has generated interesting intra-party battles. The Wall Street Journal hammered two Republican congressmen for opposing the D.C. voucher appropriation - they were justified in the case of Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA) but less justified in their condemnation of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ.) Democrat D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton viciously reprimanded Democrat Mayor Anthony Williams for supporting the measure. (Norton sends her now-adult son to private Georgetown Day school.) And more directly, African-American D.C. parents confronted essentially all white opponents of D.C. vouchers in the House subcommittee room (described above.)
Sadly the case for expanding the use of school vouchers grows stronger as more and more students fail. The distressing statistics keep piling up, as various teacher union groups, the ACLU, and the People for the American Way work to stop school voucher experimentation. No where is that more apparent (or transparent) than in the nation's capitol.
Columnist Deroy Murdoch recently documented the District's problems. He reported that the National Education Association ranks the D.C. Public Schools above the 50 states in expenditures, $13,078 per pupil vs. a $7,463 U.S. average. D.C. has a 42 percent high school dropout rate, versus 31 percent nationwide. Eighty-five percent of D.C. graduates at the University of District of Columbia require remedial instruction. On the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 6 percent of eighth-graders performed grade-level math, versus 31 percent nationwide. Ten percent of fourth-graders read at grade level, versus 35 percent nationwide. Almost 37 percent of D.C. adults read only at a third-grade level. Not surprising, four of 13 D.C. city council members have send their kids to private schools.
The pressure is on Congress to enact a school voucher test program. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies "National Opinion Poll" found that 57 percent of African Americans support school choice and in the parenting age group support rises to 70.4 percent of African Americans (between the age of 26 and 35.) A 2002 Zogby poll asked a very specific voucher question - that is, allowing "poor parents to be given the tax dollars allotted for their child's education and permitting them to use those dollars in the form of a scholarship to attend a private, public or parochial school of their choosing." Overall, 63 percent supported the proposal with 72% of African-Americans strongly supporting.
Meanwhile, the District of Columbia's educational bureaucracy languishes. Its school budget was increased to $922 million this year, but the district is still over budget. The personnel budget will be overspent by $31 million this fiscal year unless there are layoffs. This year's budget calls for 10,691 employees, but 11,330 are on the payroll. (It took 18 months for administrators to tally those numbers.) There are 71 school employees receiving paychecks whose duties can't be determined, and no one is certain if they are even reporting for work. The school district has paid a financial consultant $280,000 over the past six months to "identify problems that have caused overspending." (Talon News, Jeff Gannon)
And then there's the corruption issue. The Washington Teachers Union's labor bosses allegedly embezzled $5 million in membership dues to purchase antiques, fine art, furs and more.
The problem is at the steps of Congress, literally. Elsewhere, there has been progress. Milwaukee has 11,000 students using vouchers, Cleveland, 5,000, and Florida, 650. A newly passed voucher bill passed in the Colorado Legislature, potentially providing vouchers for nearly 17,000 students by 2007.
It may take another year or two; the District of Columbia voucher program may die in the Senate. That will mean another year for thousands of the District's students to suffer. But at ground zero, in the nation's capitol, another year will only increase the urgency and intensify the need to act. Eventually, courageous democrats like D.C. Mayor Williams will force Congress to take control of its school district - the District of Columbia school district - and save the kids under its care.
Write to Arthur at firstname.lastname@example.org
Arthur Bruzzone has written over 250 political articles for national and regional media, and has commented on political and urban issues for American and European television and radio networks. He is an award-winning public affairs television producer/host.His articles and columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Campaign & Elections Magazine, among other publications. Mr. Bruzzone holds a Masters Degree in Philosophy from C.U.A in Washington , D.C., and a M.B.A. in real estate. He is a returned Peace Corps volunteer serving two years in the Kingdom of Tonga, and the former chair of the San Francisco Republican Party. He is president of a real estate investment company headquartered in San Francisco, CA.
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