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Commentary
Voucher proponents hurt home rule
(Published November 3, 2003)

By BILL MOSLEY

Many words and much ink have been deployed on both sides of the debate over school vouchers in the District. Proponents of vouchers point to chronic problems in the D.C. public schools, while opponents see vouchers as an attempt to undermine public education by cherry-picking the brightest students for private schools while leaving most children behind.

But there has been too little discussion of a more fundamental aspect of the debate: the fact that it has been carried out largely without regard to the views of those whose opinions should count most – the citizens of the District.

The District’s lack of control over its own legislation and absence of a vote in Congress make it a fat target for national pro-voucher organizations which, working with members of Congress, salivate over a relatively easy opportunity to advance their educational agenda.

They realize that if Congress – dominated by a voucher-friendly Republican Party – decides that the District must have vouchers, there’s not a lot local elected officials and residents can do about it. We’ve been spared, so far, less by our own efforts than by supporters of public education around the country and their allies on Capitol Hill. But Republican leaders in Congress are still scheming to force vouchers on the District before year’s end.

When asked, most D.C. residents say that they oppose vouchers – 76 percent, according to a poll last year. Voucher proponents can count certain D.C. elected officials among their supporters. But Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Councilman Kevin Chavous and D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz are not, as a collective, empowered to speak or legislate on behalf of the District. (This is not first-century B.C. Rome; we are not ruled by triumvirates). But this trio sees no shame in going over the heads of the full city council and school board in order to collaborate directly with members of Congress.

Perhaps Williams, Chavous and Cafritz truly see the benefits of vouchers (although a year ago none of them would say so); perhaps they see vouchers as inevitable and want to rush to the head of the parade.

But they – and other D.C. residents who would go over the heads of local institutions to get what they want – do our city a disservice by undermining what little democracy we have. What is the point of local lobbying, activism or even voting when every decision can be reversed by federal fiat?

The intervention of Congress once again threatens to short-circuit a policy debate among D.C. residents, as it (or its agent, the control board) did with the fate of D.C. General Hospital and the composition of the school board – with, I might add, Mayor Williams taking the side of the interveners in each case.

If, as voucher advocates say, their aim is to improve opportunities for D.C. youth rather than subvert home rule, Congress should take the $10 million now targeted for vouchers and give it to the District to use as we see fit, with only one condition – that the money be used for education. Then the citizens and their elected government representatives could have a full-throated debate about whether to use all of it, some of it, or none of it for vouchers.

That’s called democracy. When will we get some?

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Bill Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C Coalition. Contact him at billmosley@starpower.net.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator