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Native Intelligence
When 'choice' becomes destructive
(Published July 25, 2005)

By DIANA WINTHROP

I received two press releases last week on the progress of the D.C. appropriations bill through Congress one from D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and the other from Senate D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Sam Brownback, R-Kan. that have finally made me realize the Republican Party is winning the battle to kill public education in this country under the misnomer of "choice."

The Norton release thanked Brownback and the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, for producing a spending bill that "does not deny self-governing rights to D.C. residents." The contentious issues of repealing the District's gun-control law and expanding the District's school voucher program have been put on the back burner for the summer, according to Brownback. But the Kansas conservative warned he still plans to impose the final death blow to our school system by expanding the federal voucher program, which will institutionalize educational inequality for the next school year.

An estimated 1,600 low-income students have been given up to $7,500 a year in federal grants to attend 67 private and religious schools this fall. Brownback's plan is to use more tax dollars to pay tuition for D.C. students at private schools in the surrounding suburbs, because there is a shortage of space to place more voucher students at private high schools located in the District.

I am ready to throw in the towel. My representative, Norton, was thanking Brownback for killing us -- not swiftly, but slowly torturing us to death. I guess I have been in denial for the past few years, refusing to believe that public education, as one of the last vestiges of democratic institutions in this country, was dying even as Congress approved the first federally funded school voucher program in the nation's capital by just one vote in 2003.

It took Norton's press release to remind me that I share a bond with people who are now upset over the nomination of John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court and his apparent personal views on a woman's right to choose an abortion.

Why is anyone surprised at the Roberts choice? The Republicans won the White House and expanded their margins in the House and Senate. Why should I be surprised that Brownback wants to spend more money to send a handful of students to private schools under the guise of "choice" and has the votes to do it?

"Choice" a good political buzz word is apparently a good thing to Republicans when it comes to schools, but not when it comes to women controlling their own bodies.

A majority of state legislatures have said "no" to taxpayer-financed school vouchers as an unnecessary drain on public education. They have successfully fought proliferation of unequal education, but Brownback -- who is sitting in the catbird seat -- has insisted on creating greater inequality in the District and there is nothing we can do to stop him. He has the votes and we, as citizens, don't.

A recent invitation to a meeting about my 40th high school reunion also reminded me how the dream of educational equality is dead.

I was lucky to attend Western High School (now Duke Ellington) in the 1960s, when public schools throughout the District were overcrowded. (It was the height of the baby boom generation and many schools had classes with as many as 35 students.)

Western, located in Georgetown, was under-populated at the time because most Georgetown parents sent their children to tony private schools. Western was the only school in the city open to anyone who wanted to attend. I went to high school with not only people whose families were considered "middle class," but also working-class people from all over town, rich and poor, children of military families and foreign nationals. Western's student body looked like a mini-United Nations. All of us knew there was something special about our situation and almost all of us took advantage of the experience. We became better citizens because of it.

Educational inequality is a major threat to the strength of our country, even more of a threat than terrorists' bombs. Brownback and other voucher supporters are destroying the fiber of our country by weakening public education. Most of us didn't see it coming, and now it looks like it may be too late.

I mourn for tomorrow's children, who won't be as lucky as I was.

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Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator