Washington (DC) Mayor Williams Honored for Efforts to Promote School Choice
By J.D. LaRock
August 4, 2003
On July 8, the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation (CCI), a New York-based public policy group, honored Washington (DC) Mayor Anthony Williams with its annual "Urban Innovator Award." The award, which was presented at a luncheon at the National Press Club, is given each year to a mayor who demonstrates innovative approaches to improving city administration.
This year, Williams was given the award for his support of the "D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act," a hotly debated bill that is currently being considered in the U.S. Congress. The bill, which was introduced by Representative Tom Davis (VA), would establish a school voucher program in the District of Columbia. Under the plan, low-income parents could receive up to $7,500 in public funds every year to enroll their children in private or religious schools through a scholarship program administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
Williams said his support for the school choice bill was motivated, in part, by his desire to stem the flight of middle-class families from Washington. "You can-t have a city that's going to survive if you don't have a solid middle class," he said. "To me, injecting choice and competition is the only way we're going to start reversing that trend and bringing back, on a long-term and sustainable basis, that middle class."
According to Williams, the poor quality of Washington's public school system is a primary reason why middle-class families leave the city. For example, the D.C. public school system ranked lower than all 50 states in the 2003 National Assessment of Education Progress, a highly regarded standardized test that is given nationwide. Of the DC public school students who took the test this year, 69 percent of 4th-graders and 52 percent of 8th-graders scored "below basic" in reading; 27 percent of 4th-graders and 37 percent of 8th-graders scored "below basic" in writing. "These kids need help right now," Williams said.
The DC Parental Choice Incentive Act has already generated battles, both in Congress and among city leaders. In DC, other supporters of the bill include Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the city's school board, and Kevin Chavous, chairman of DC city council's education committee. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's delegate to Congress, strongly opposes the measure.
On July 10, the Committee on Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives approved the bill by a vote of 22 to 21. On July 15, the House Appropriations Committee also allocated $10 million for the scholarship program. In the Senate, however, the measure appears to be facing a tougher fight. Supporters of the voucher program want to allocate $40 million for it next year, but Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee blocked a vote on the measure in mid-July. Further action on the bill is not expected before September.
Legislation establishing school choice for low-income students in Washington has been introduced in Congress several times before, beginning in 1995. In fact, both the House and Senate approved such a bill in 1998, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it.
Over the last fifteen years, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida have established school voucher programs using taxpayer dollars. In each case, the programs have sparked considerable controversy. In 2002, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland's school voucher program in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. That voucher program had been challenged on the grounds that using taxpayer funds to support religious schools violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. But the Court held the program was legal, as long as parents could choose between various religious and non-religious schools in using the vouchers.
Supporters of school choice believe that creating competition for public schools will spur school districts to perform better, and lead to greater academic success for students who use the vouchers to attend private or religious schools. Opponents of school choice say vouchers allow private schools to cherry-pick the very best students, and take already-limited resources away from the public schools. Acknowledging this latter concern, Williams said he is lobbying for greater federal support for the District of Columbia's public schools as he pushes Congress to support the school choice proposal.
Other cities, including Dayton, New York City, and Washington have also operated privately funded voucher programs for the last several years. In 2002, a Harvard University study found that African-American students who took part in these programs made statistically significant gains in reading and math, compared to their counterparts who remained in the public schools.
Noting these results, Williams said, "At the very least, I think this shows we should give this a try, and let an independent third party come and review the outcomes. If people are afraid to even experiment, that shows there's some self-interest operating."