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Save D.C.’s Voucher Program!
It’s popular and it saves money; now Democrats want to axe it.
4 March 2009

Amid their smorgasbord of new congressional spending, Democrats have decided to make a highly telling cut in the $410 billion spending bill that the House passed last week: a popular and successful school-choice program in Washington, D.C. To add insult to injury, the initiative costs taxpayers just $18 million a year, which amounts to little more than a rounding error in the bill. Now the Senate has a last chance to save school choice for students in D.C. while advancing the broader cause of education reform.

The five-year-old, federally funded voucher program serves about 1,800 schoolchildren—80 percent of whom are African-American, from homes with an average family income of $23,000 a year. The program spends just $7,500 per student, about half the per-pupil allocation for the local public school system, which ranked last in math and second-to-last in reading among all the nation’s urban public schools in 2007, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though studies so far haven’t shown that the voucher program improves its students’ educational outcomes, having the alternative available certainly doesn’t hurt, and researchers at Georgetown University found a 90 percent parental satisfaction rate for it. Thousands of parents occupy spots on the waiting list.

Washington’s mayor, Democrat Adrian Fenty, is a strong supporter of the voucher program, as was Mayor Anthony Williams before him. But the District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has long opposed it on the grounds that it takes money from the public schools—a nonsensical argument, given the separate federal funding for the program. The real reason the voucher program arouses opposition is the threat that it poses to the disproportionate influence of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the self-appointed gatekeeper of the education monopoly. As a Wall Street Journal editorial aptly put it, “The reason unions want to shut the program down immediately isn’t because they’re afraid it will fail. They’re afraid it will succeed.”

President Obama has often spoken of the need for education reform that looks beyond the usual UFT constituency. “There are areas like education, where some in my party have been too resistant to reform, and have argued only money makes a difference,” Obama said in his first prime-time news conference as president. “Both sides are going to have to acknowledge we’re going to need more money for new science labs, to pay teachers more effectively. But we’re also going to need more reform . . . bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively, [and] we should experiment with things like charter schools that are innovating in the classroom.”

The Obama administration has certainly delivered more money to education—$90 billion over two years in the final stimulus bill. Reform, however, has been slower to materialize. Now education reformers in the Senate have a chance to stand up for school choice and push the administration to follow through on its reform rhetoric or risk accusations of hypocrisy. “Most of the politicians have choices on where to send their kids to school,” voucher-program parent William Rush, Jr. pointed out in the Wall Street Journal. “Why do they want to take our choices away?” The answer to Rush’s question is sadly simple. The double standard results from an education philosophy that views what’s best for “the people” separately from what’s best for the individuals in one’s own family. In the face of poor parents crying out for—yes—change, the voucher program’s opponents defend the failed status quo.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has recognized this problem before. “It’s morally inexcusable that children who happen to be born in wealthier communities, white ones, get a better education than those who live in poor communities,” he told Time during the presidential campaign. “We’ve lacked the political courage to fundamentally challenge the status quo, not just tweak it at its edges. It doesn’t need a tweak. It needs a fundamental change.” Secretary Duncan now has a chance to follow through on these principles and stand firm against the liberal legislators who are attempting to roll him.

Obama’s talk of “reclaiming the American dream” requires equal opportunity for educational advancement pursued by willing students and their parents. That’s what school choice is all about. And that’s why the fight over the D.C. voucher program is worthwhile, even if it temporarily brings about an odd role reversal. Already, aides to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are channeling Ronald Reagan in defending the budget cut, with spokesman Brendan Daly saying, “There is no such thing as a permanent program.” But Senate Republicans and centrist Democrats should identify other places to save among the spending bill’s staggering 9,000 earmarks and restore funding for this innovative program, which has already provided hope and change to a new generation of inner-city students in our nation’s capital.

John P. Avlon is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics.

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