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More black lawmakers open to school vouchers
Posted 5/12/2009 8:37 PM ET
WASHINGTON — Back when he was on the city council for the District of Columbia, attorney Kevin Chavous would occasionally run into fellow Democrats concerned about the state of the USA's urban schools.

They were open to a lot of ideas, but most Democrats have historically rejected taxpayer-supported private-school vouchers, saying they drain precious cash from needy public schools. Chavous, who served from 1992 to 2005, openly supported vouchers. He would ask others why they didn't.

"Several of them would whisper to me, 'I'm with you, but I can't come out in front,' " Chavous says.

That was then.

While vouchers will likely never be the clarion call of Democrats, they're beginning to make inroads among a group of young black lawmakers, mayors and school officials who have split with party and teachers union orthodoxy on school reform. The group includes Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams.

"You can no longer dismiss this as Catholic or right-wing," says Jeanne Allen of the Center on Education Reform, a Washington think tank.

Allen has pushed for vouchers and charter schools for decades. She originally thought the shift was generational. "But I actually think it has more to do with more-principled people who understand and have seen how badly the existing system has hurt minority kids."

While Chavous and others say vouchers are far from the perfect solution, they're worth offering to students in the nation's bleakest public schools. Urban Democrats, he says, "see that what's happening to our kids in these schools just is unacceptable — we need to look at all options."

The party split will be on display Wednesday when former Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, now an independent, chairs a hearing on Washington, D.C.'s federally funded Opportunity Scholarship Program. It's perhaps the most high-profile voucher hearing of the past five years, coming a few days after two prominent Democrats, Dianne Feinstein and Robert Byrd, joined a handful of Republicans to criticize President Obama for letting funding for D.C.'s program lapse.

Lieberman's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to hear testimony from families whose children attend private schools through the program. He'll also hear from Williams and Bruce Stewart, head of Sidwell Friends School, where Obama's two daughters are enrolled.

Obama last week said he'd fund the D.C. program until its current students graduate, but he maintains that vouchers are not a long-term education reform. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama suggested that he'd weigh the evidence on vouchers but did not keep them in his first budget last week. Instead, he and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan agreed to fund D.C.'s program until the 1,716 students now enrolled graduate.

Lieberman last week called it "a start," but said the scholarship "is a valuable program that should be available to new students as well."

Obama and Duncan are unlikely to budge anytime soon — Duncan recently acknowledged D.C.'s woes, calling its public schools "a national disgrace." But he added: "We have to be much more ambitious for ourselves and have higher expectations — we have to help every child in D.C. The answer is not vouchers for a few. It's massive change, massive reform for all, absolutely as quickly as possible."

First proposed in 1955 by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, private-school vouchers have had a decidedly rocky history and have never fully taken root in U.S. public schools. While the federal government routinely underwrites college students' tuition and fees to attend private colleges and universities, K-12 vouchers are limited to a few scattered programs in cities such as Cleveland, Milwaukee and, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans. Special-education students in Florida also attend private schools on the public dime, but voters in about a dozen states have rejected voucher proposals over the past few decades.

Fifty-four years after Friedman first proposed vouchers, only 61,000 of the nation's 50 million students attend school with a voucher — just over one-tenth of 1%. Another 100,000 in six states benefit from tax credits for private-school tuition.

D.C.'s program — formally known as The District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act — has served as a lightning rod since Congress approved it in January 2004 as the first federally funded private-school voucher.

A federal evaluation, released April 3 by the U.S. Education Department, found that after three years, there was a "statistically significant positive impact" on students' reading test scores, but not on their math scores. Overall, voucher students performed about three months ahead of their peers in public schools in reading, but no better in math.

Mary Lord, a member of the D.C. State Board of Education, says the statistics may be misleading because many of the voucher kids attend the city's worst schools. She says the voucher, which provides up to $7,500 a year, gives "enormous bang for the buck," considering that the city's per-pupil budget for year is, by one estimate, nearly $17,000 per student.

"It's a no-brainer to me," she says.

Posted 5/12/2009 8:37 PM ET
Ex-mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony Williams is among school voucher supporters. The District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act has served as a lightning rod since Congress approved it in January 2004 as the first federally funded private-school voucher.
AP 2004 file photo
Ex-mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony Williams is among school voucher supporters. The District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act has served as a lightning rod since Congress approved it in January 2004 as the first federally funded private-school voucher.