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Leaving 60,000 children behind

(Published July 14, 2003)

President Bush's pledge to "Leave No Child Behind," while laudatory in philosophic terms, is being undermined by the president's own efforts to impose private-school vouchers on the District of Columbia.

The president's voucher plan, which has cleared the House Committee on Government Reform chaired by suburban Virginia Congressman Thomas Davis, would provide a public tax subsidy for about 2,000 D.C. children from low-income families to enroll in parochial or other private schools.

What happens to the more than 60,000 children who would remain enrolled in D.C. Public Schools after those favored 2,000 students get federal aid to leave?

The president's plan leaves those children behind - and, through the existing funding formula for D.C. Public Schools, also hurts them.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and D.C. City Council education committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous publicly embraced the president's plan earlier this year when they were led to believe that the president intended to concurrently champion significant new federal assistance for the District's public schools.

Chavous recently disavowed his support for the Bush voucher plan when he belatedly realized that the fast-tracked "District of Columbia Parental Choice Incentive Act" on Capitol Hill includes no money - and no promises for future money - for the District's public schools.

Cafritz, who made a highly publicized U-turn in her position on vouchers to support the president, has been uncharacteristically quiet since it became obvious that the presumed pot of gold for public schools doesn't exist.

On the other hand, Mayor Williams - who also reversed his previous opposition to vouchers - continues to support the Bush plan and has even adopted the president's semantics ploy to make vouchers seem more palatable by referring to them as "scholarships."

Let's stop the obfuscation. Eligibility for vouchers would be determined by economic need. "Scholarships," as the term denotes, are rewards for academic excellence - not financial aid for the needy. No one, at this point, has proposed that federal vouchers be awarded to students based on their academic achievement.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, has informed her congressional colleagues that the president's plan to help about 2,000 students exit the public schools also will result in the D.C. Public Schools losing more than $25 million in per-pupil funding. Last week school officials announced plans to cut $6.5 million in textbook funds and 442 jobs, including school-based positions, to close a $40.4 million budget gap.

Federal vouchers to help 2,000 students clearly will have serious detrimental consequences for the education of the more than 60,000 D.C. children who will NOT be helped by the president's plan. It's doubtful that D.C. parents intend to hurt their neighbors' children by helping their own with this flawed "parental choice incentive" - but that's precisely the choice this voucher plan gives them.

Members of Congress would not impose such a choice on their own constituents and have not even proposed giving such a "benefit" to their home districts. They should not force it upon half a million D.C. citizens who have no voting representative in Congress.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator