Soundings

Philip Murphy
Teachers Against the Poor
Summer 1996

Just when it seemed that things could get no worse with municipal government in the District of Columbia—streets unplowed in winter and barely paved in summer, 911 calls routinely unanswered—congressional Democrats entered the picture. Accelerating the District's descent into chaos, they recently blocked a generous new city budget for more than five months.

Democrats kept all city services in limbo because 0.1 percent of the $5 billion D.C. budget was allocated to the most tentative and conditional of school voucher proposals. The city soon discovered that not even the tiniest inroad against the teachers' union monopoly is too small for its political allies to ignore. As one National Education Association lobbyist put it, "this is bigger than the District."

The proposal called for a pilot program that would give federal grants of up to $3,000 each to 1,500 disadvantaged students, usable at the public or private school of their choice. It would not have diverted a dime of public-school funds or spent a penny of local tax revenue.

Feverish lobbying by the NEA convinced no less than the president of the United States to weigh in against the measure. Senate Democrats rose to the occasion and filibustered the entire D.C. budget four times until the program—one element in a 14-point reform package—was deleted. Such a naked show of force stunned even liberal stalwarts. Washington mayor Marion Barry accused Democrats of "stabbing us in the back."

The District's public school system is a disaster, even though it devotes roughly $9,200 per student to public education. Less than half the District's students graduate, and a third leave high school unable to read or write. For these young people, radical school reform is their only chance to escape from a life of urban poverty.

But no reform, however incremental, will succeed as long as union activists maintain a stranglehold on D.C.'s public education system. Vouchers pose a mortal threat to this monopoly, which explains the willingness of the teachers' unions to use scorched-earth methods in opposing them. The resulting political divide is instructive, with deep-pocketed labor unions pitted against the poor and disadvantaged.

Friends of choice for D.C. still have reason to hope. GOP Congressmen James Talent of Missouri and J. C. Watts of Oklahoma have introduced H.R. 3467, the Community Renewal Act, which would, among other things, make school choice available in 100 low-income areas that apply for designation as "renewal communities." Here, too, the federal government would fund education scholarships. The act's sponsors believe that challenging the nation's most powerful labor union on a hundred fronts at once is more likely to work than the single modest assault that failed for D.C.

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