The midterm elections and the Supreme Court’s Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision that found school vouchers constitutional have handed President Bush an unprecedented opportunity to reform American public education fundamentally. The president should call upon the new Congress, which provides the funding for the District of Columbia’s government, to pass a law mandating vouchers for the city’s schools—among the very worst in the nation. Twice before, in 1997 and 1998, Congress passed such legislation, but the threat, and then the reality, of a veto from President Clinton derailed their efforts. Now the executive and the legislative branches, with the blessing of the judicial, can unite to create a pilot voucher program aimed at poor minority kids trapped in Washington D.C.’s failing public schools.
Come January, the president should stand on the steps of one of Washington’s worst schools—and there are all too many to choose from—and issue a declaration of conscience that never again will poor black kids in the nation’s capital be forced to attend a school that dooms them to failure. Here’s what the president should say:
“The existence of so many failing schools in the nation’s capital is a tragedy and a disgrace. Liberating poor minority kids from inner-city schools that don’t work is the one remaining civil rights battle that America must win. We know that in the more affluent neighborhoods of this city practically no parents send their children to the public schools—and who can blame them? But it is morally wrong to have one system of schools for the wealthy and the middle class and another for the minorities and the poor. We used to call that segregation.
“We have tried for years to fix Washington’s broken schools—and schools like them in cities around the nation—by pumping more and more money into them. School spending nationwide is four times greater in real terms than it was four decades ago. But the schools are as bad as they have ever been. All these efforts at improvement have failed because there is something wrong with the system as it now exists.
“It is a system that puts the interests of its employees ahead of the interests of its children. There are many caring and hardworking educators teaching in the public schools, but they too are trapped in a dysfunctional system in which merit goes unrewarded and incompetence and coldhearted callousness are never punished.
“It’s time to recognize that the poor children of this city can’t wait any longer. Now we must allow families whose kids are trapped in these perennially failing schools the same kinds of educational choices that other families in the city—including those of so many lawmakers—have always enjoyed.
“By extending to poor families the freedom to choose their children’s schools, we will not be harming the public schools, as some fear. To the contrary: the competition that school choice will bring is probably the only thing that could shake the district’s public school system out of its present paralysis. After voucher programs got started in Milwaukee and Cleveland, the public school system had no choice but to reform in order to keep families from leaving. As a result, many of the public schools in those cities are now improving.
“Let us have the courage finally to create equal educational opportunities for all our children—to make sure that, truly, no child gets left behind. If we do that in America’s capital city, we will be sending a beacon of hope to the families in our inner cities struggling—and often so tragically not succeeding—to find decent schools for their children.”
With the present political climate and the realignment in the Congress, President Bush would win a fight for a D.C. voucher bill with a first-round knockout. In that victory, he would also dramatically revive the “compassionate conservative” agenda he sketched out so earnestly before the war on terror demanded his full attention—an agenda that had as one of its key points making sure that poor children would get the education they need to succeed as full and equal citizens in America’s modern economy. By creating a school choice program in Washington, the president would set off a chain reaction of voucher programs in other cities. He would force the teachers’ unions that are the Democratic Party’s primary interest group to take the education of children at least as seriously as the employment and working conditions of adults. He would utterly change the conversation about how to make the nation’s inner- city schools give kids the skills that make our opportunity society a reality rather than merely an ideal, and he would quicken the pace of school reform all across America.