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This Republican scheme won't help fix our public schools
Voucher rip-off in D.C.

By Michele Bollinger, WTU | October 3, 2003 | Page 2

REPUBLICANS IN Congress want to use the Washington, D.C., public schools as a laboratory for their privatization schemes.

In September, the House of Representatives voted 209-208 to spend $10 million on private school vouchers for students in the D.C. public schools. The measure was due to come to a vote in the Senate as Socialist Worker went to press.

Supporters claim that vouchers are a way of "rescuing" children from a failing education system–by giving families a subsidy to help pay the cost of tuition in a private school. But the injustice of vouchers is shown clearly in the measure passed by the House–out of nearly 68,000 students who attend public schools in D.C., just 1,3000 would get a voucher. Some "rescue"!

At the same time. the vouchers proposal would bleed more money out a chronically underfunded system. In July, the D.C. School Board laid off more than 400 school workers because of cuts. The board also denied D.C. teachers their annual standard-of-living increase, though it was paid out to all other city workers, and cut a 9 percent raise guaranteed in their contract. These cuts were retracted last week, but the board hasn't identified funds to actually pay teachers, and it ordered the superintendent to reopen the contract with the Washington Teachers Union to renegotiate the raise.

Instead of providing funds to save jobs and pay teachers fairly, congressional leaders want to steal another $10 million from public education in D.C.

House Republicans had to pull a maneuver to ensure winning the vote on vouchers, scheduling it for the same night that several House Democrats–including presidential candidates Dennis Kucinich and Richard Gephardt, as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)–were attending a debate sponsored by the CBC. "They knew the [presidential] debate was tonight," Gephardt spokesperson Erik Smith told reporters. "They knew there would be a couple dozen [CBC] members that wanted to attend. It's not rocket science. This is the way this Republican House leadership operates."

But the whole debate on vouchers for D.C. school students is a joke. Republicans leading the charge claim that opposition to vouchers comes from the "big money" teachers union–and that teachers have failed to "put children first and politics aside."

They also blame D.C. itself for the crisis, claiming that D.C. schools spend more money per student than any other school system in the country. That's a bald-faced lie. D.C. Public Schools spends far less per pupil than most of the surrounding districts–even while the level of need has grown.

The only solution is a massive increase in funding for the school system–to allow for smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers and staff, more instructional and technological resources and increased social services to address the crisis of poverty and unemployment that plagues D.C. as a whole.

But all that was lost in the public relations campaign of front groups for right-wing think tanks, which ran pro-voucher ad campaigns for months in the D.C. area, likening the voucher program to the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s to desegregate public schools.

And Republicans aren't the only problem. Several leading Democrats stabbed public education advocates in the back by publicly jumping ship on vouchers in D.C. schools.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, for example, was previously opposed to vouchers, and he has spent years pushing through the budget cuts that have produced the crisis in our schools. But Williams had the gall to tell the Washington Post last May that he "got up one morning and decided there are a lot of kids getting a crappy education, and we could do better."

Meanwhile, a bill that allocates $13 million for D.C. vouchers is expected to pass the Senate in the next several weeks. And California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)–who campaigned against vouchers in her home state, but who very publicly changed her position recently on vouchers for D.C.–is expected to cast the vote that tips the balance.

Vouchers are no solution for poor students. Voucher experiments in Cleveland and Milwaukee have shown no tangible results in student achievement, even for the small minority that got the subsidies. And the programs diverted public money away from the vast majority of public school students.

It's an open question whether a vouchers program would even work in D.C. The program will be open to 1,300 students whose family income is at or just above the poverty line. But the proposed $7,500 voucher will be little help in a city of expensive private schools where tuition at Sidwell Friends, Chelsea Clinton's alma mater, tops out at $20,000 a year. In other words, private school tuition is usually out of reach for the vast majority of D.C. residents–even with a voucher.

Politicians are taking advantage of the lack of democracy for D.C. residents to push through a program that has been overwhelmingly rejected here. A Zogby poll conducted in November 2002 showed that 75 percent of residents oppose vouchers. But D.C. has no voting representation in Congress, and Congress ultimately controls D.C.'s budget. That's why a proposal that originated from the Bush administration is on the verge of going into effect.

Voucher supporters are hoping to use D.C. to get their foot in the door–and set a precedent for expanding their schemes elsewhere. This is why every teacher, parent and student across the country should oppose this attack on D.C. Public Schools.

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