Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Give Washington, D.C. Families a Choice and a Chance

Stephen Lazarus


September 8, 2003

For thousands of poor families in Washington, D.C., the start of the new school year is not a happy time. Their children will return to some of America's worst and most dangerous schools that often inspire more fear than achievement. Meanwhile, low-income families in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida will receive government help this year to send their children to alternative, high-quality schools (including religious ones) that take part in school choice programs.

Why don't poor families in D.C. have this same opportunity? Not because D.C. lacks good schools ready and willing to open the doors of opportunity to any who want to come. It is certainly not because D.C. parents don't want their children to attend better schools, including religious ones, that have long been out of reach for them until now. Rather, it is because a handful of special interest groups, teachers' unions, and their friends in Congress continue to block school choice in D.C. out of narrow self-interest.

School funding to them is a zero-sum game: every dime of public money for St. Michael's School in the community is money taken away from Public School 125. This type of reasoning pits "public" vs. "private" schools in eternal conflict and sacrifices the poor at the altar of political ideology. Thankfully, recent events have begun to push this reasoning to the breaking point. Responding to the state of emergency in D.C. schools and to last summer's Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of public funding for religious schools, Congress introduced legislation last week to launch a $15 million dollar school choice pilot program for Washington, D.C.

Giving poor D.C. parents the freedom to exercise their parental responsibility and choose from among diverse schools is no cure-all or magic bullet. However, studies suggest that access to better schools can help break the cycle of poverty for these families. Also, government can do a much better job of honoring the deeply held convictions that Americans of all faiths want to see reflected in their children's schools. Carefully crafted school choice plans show government at its best, promoting the public good of all within the framework of principled pluralism.

If Congress lifts the ban on school choice in D.C., how will this promote the public good? First, giving disadvantaged children tuition scholarships to attend better schools will begin to bring down the wall that separates the poor from effective schooling. Seventy-six percent of D.C. fourth graders perform below grade level in math. Only 10 percent read proficiently. When this is the case and D.C. has the third highest level of per-pupil spending in the nation ($10,852), as Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Ca) recently pointed out when reversing her position on vouchers, then the answer to D.C.'s troubles cannot simply be "spend more money."

Second, school choice will dissolve the artificial wall dividing "public" and "private" in education funding. If St. Michael's educates students just as effectively or better than P.S. 125, then it, too, serves the public good, and it deserves public compensation. School taxes should fund all children equally, whether their parents choose Christian, Jewish, Muslim or secular schools. Expanding parental choice in schooling is a good idea that promotes justice not only for the poor, but for all Americans.

Third, with these walls broken down, new public space will be opened up for a renaissance in American education. School choice will be a fundamental freedom, as it is in most of the free world, to educate one's children with public support in harmony with one's basic beliefs.

In D.C., the idea now has the support of Mayor Anthony Williams and the local school board president, both Democrats. As Williams has said, "It's time to try something else." Amen.

—Stephen Lazarus, Senior Policy Associate
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”