Facebook Twitter

William Raspberry: Will vouchers hurt or help D.C. kids?

SHARE William Raspberry: Will vouchers hurt or help D.C. kids?

WASHINGTON — The forum for Democratic presidential candidates was scheduled for Tuesday evening in Baltimore, under the sponsorship of the Congressional Black Caucus.

So House Republicans, knowing a lot of anti-voucher Democrats — including members of the fiercely anti-voucher Black Caucus — would be out of town, scheduled a vote on a plan to launch a five-year voucher experiment for District of Columbia schoolchildren. The pro-voucher forces prevailed by a single vote.

It was a classic dirty trick — or, more charitably, extremely clever politics. It is one of the things I find offensive about the entire voucher effort.

The other is that the Republican-led Congress, many of whose members would never have tried to force vouchers on their home states, chose to foist this experiment upon the voteless District of Columbia. Most members of the City Council opposed it. And Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's elected delegate to Congress, couldn't even cast a vote on the controversial legislation.

It's galling that outsiders dictate the terms by which D.C. residents will educate their children.

But this question nags: Was this heavy-handed outcome bad for the children?

Vouchers, I know, have become the Moses' rod of politics — capable of dividing the electorate as efficiently as Moses parted the Red Sea. Democrats and the institutions that support them — labor, teachers, civil rights organizations — are overwhelmingly anti-voucher.

Their arguments cover the gamut but focus on harm to public education. Some opponents believe that the driving force behind vouchers is a philosophical desire to get rid of public schools. Delegate Norton, more modestly, contends that the $13 million for vouchers (in the Senate version) is $13 million that won't go to public schools that desperately need it.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous, both Democrats and both of whom have caught a lot of flak for their support of the voucher initiative, promise the public schools won't lose any funding to the voucher plan, even if it means making up the difference from elsewhere in the city budget.

Many Republicans, on the other hand, are fascinated by the idea of providing competition for the public schools, forcing them to improve or go out of business.

One side opposes vouchers because vouchers would hurt the schools most children attend (though a dismaying number of these partisans do virtually nothing else to help public schools). The other side supports vouchers because vouchers provide an escape hatch from schools whose leaders will not or cannot improve them (though too often the only thing they do for the students in those schools is to advocate vouchers). Both sides do it for the children.

And both have a point. Money is fungible, and dollars spent on vouchers are dollars that won't be spent on public schools. But it is also true that money not spent on vouchers won't necessarily be spent on public schools. The D.C. voucher plan at least begins with new money.

But for all my misgivings about some of the voucher advocates, there is something that troubles me about the anti-voucher crowd as well. Much of the opposition comes from middle-class folk whose own children attended (or had the option of attending) nonpublic schools. And the question that won't go away is: If choice is good for middle-class children, why is it bad for poor children who, without some sort of subsidy, may find themselves stuck in underperforming schools?

Stuck is the right word. Whenever there's an opportunity for poor parents to move their children out of low-performing schools — whether that opportunity is a public subsidy (as in Milwaukee), a private scholarship, or a low-cost Catholic school, there's no shortage of takers. The conclusion has to be that they hadn't left earlier because they had no choice.

Vouchers, whatever trickery has brought them to Washington and whatever the downside might be, would extend them that choice. As a middle class parent whose children attended both public and private schools, I can't see anything particularly noble about denying that same choice to children whose parents are poor.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.