By a single-vote margin, the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 9 passed a bill that includes a school-voucher provision for low-income families in the District of Columbia. This is a small, five-year pilot program that has had several heavyweight titles. It has been rather grandly but accurately called at different times both the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act and the D.C. Parental Choice Initiative Act.
By whatever name it is known, the measure would add to the district’s school budget $40 million in new money for what are identified as “three sectors” of schooling: $13 million for regular public schools, $13 million for charter schools that are publicly funded but not publicly controlled and $13 million for a voucher program—a sum the House reduced to $10 million when it passed the bill.
Under the act, children from poor families who found themselves stuck in failing public schools would be eligible for vouchers worth up to $7,500 annually. These vouchers could be used to pay tuition and fees in nonpublic schools, including those with a religious affiliation.
That $7,500 is about half of what the district’s public school system currently spends per pupil for its 68,000 students. Most of those students are African Americans or Latinos, and many are from low-income families. These children are not well served by the city’s public schools. The district’s mayor, Anthony A. Williams, is a Democrat who once opposed vouchers; last May, however, he changed his mind. He bluntly explained why: he “got up one morning and decided there are a lot of kids getting a crappy education and we could do better.”
Vouchers are one strategy for improvement. The Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, a campaigner for the bill, has noted that vouchers would do no more than give the district’s stranded children “the opportunity to seek a different or better education if they so choose.”
If the bill ever becomes law, there would probably be more applicants for vouchers than the funds allotted could cover. In that case, recipients would be chosen by lottery. It is also likely that many families would choose one of the 29 Catholic schools in the district. In the academic year 2002-3, more than 40 percent of the students in those schools were not Catholics, and 65 percent were nonwhite. Tuition and fees were astonishingly low: an average of $3,740 in elementary schools and $9,610 in high schools.
So far, however, the Senate has not passed the bill. All Republicans except Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter favor the act, and with the help of a few Democrats they have enough votes for passage. But they do not have enough votes to defeat the filibuster that Democrats warn they will conduct if the bill comes up for a vote. Nevada’s Democratic Senator Harry Reid, the assistant minority leader, said: “I think everyone knows that this bill, as long as this voucher issue is in here floating around, is not going to go very far.”
It may not move at all. With the notable exception of California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senators are no more willing to discuss vouchers than to discuss term limits for themselves. There is an odd, if not sinister, puzzle here. For generations, the Democratic Party in the North was presumed to be the party of blue-collar workers, of Catholics and, more recently, of African Americans. Given the district’s demographic makeup, these are constituencies the voucher bill would benefit.
Why haven’t the majority of the Senate’s Democrats followed the example of Senator Feinstein and Mayor Williams? After all, this is a very limited plan. It used to be said that all voucher projects would be unconstitutional, but that objection was blown out of the water when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in June 2002 that Cleveland’s voucher program does not offend against the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
A few weeks ago, the Senate minority leader, Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, remarked that vouchers would mean “an unfortunate loss of revenue for our public school system.” In fact, nonpublic schools save the government billions of dollars. If they were to close tomorrow, many states would face an acute financial crisis as they tried to provide schooling for thousands of children for whom they would have neither money nor space.
The Senate Democrats, however, treasure the good will of the powerful teachers’ unions, which detest vouchers. But both the senators and the unions have their priorities misplaced. In a letter to The Washington Post on Sept. 21, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, pointed out that the issue in the District of Columbia is not private versus public or Catholic versus non-Catholic. The cardinal said he believes in public education and is working with the city’s leaders to improve it. But that work is best done, he concluded, by “putting politics aside and putting our children and families first.”