National Catholic Register


School Choice Looks for A Political Champion in Washington

Many D.C. politicians tout public education, but send their kids to private schools

BY William Murray

October 11-17, 1998 Issue | Posted 10/11/98 at 1:00 PM


WASHINGTON—Voters in the nation's capital will head to the polls next month to elect a mayor to succeed Marion Barry, but school choice advocates will not be able to elect a major party candidate who supports their cause.

The city's mayor does not have responsibility for schools, and only Congress and the White House can authorize a school choice program, said Daisy Voigt, a spokeswoman for Republican Carol Schwartz's campaign. Since the 1994 election, which gave the Republicans control over Congress, President Clinton has vetoed two budget packages for the District of Columbia that included school choice pilot programs.

Anthony Williams, the former chief financial officer for the district and Democratic mayoral candidate, does not support education vouchers, according to Max Brown, his deputy campaign manager.

“The public school system would be eroded and only richer people would have the ability to pay the amount” over what the program would cover, Brown told the Register. Williams “supports charter schools as long as public schools are given the tools to compete,” Brown said.

Williams is likely to win the election in Washington, which is heavily Democratic. He's also a Catholic, raised by a large adoptive family in Los Angeles before he earned degrees at Harvard and Yale.

Likewise, Councilwoman Schwartz has actively opposed any District of Columbia appropriations bill sent to Congress that includes school choice, said Voigt. “She does not support the use of tax money to pay for private education,” because such a program would diminish public schools, Schwartz's spokeswoman said. “She believes in public education.”

But school choice advocates don't see it as an either/or situation. “We're not in the business of thrashing the public school system,” said Ron Jackson, executive director of the D.C. Catholic Conference. To make their case more compelling, advocates need to use the term “scholarship,” instead of “voucher,” he added.

In some ways, Washington is ripe for school choice. Its rate of spending per pupil is among the highest in the nation, though its standardized test scores lag below national averages, its dropout rates are high, and its lack of facility maintenance often results in lengthy school closings.

Jackson favors a three-year pilot program in the capital so that the schools and the voters can see the results before deciding about implementing the program on a larger scale.

I want every parent to have that vision of what their children are capable of doing when teachers care about them and hold them accountable.

James Cardinal Hickey, head of the Washington archdiocese, would not support any school choice programs that might undermine the schools' Catholic identity, Jackson said.

But from all appearances, one form of school choice is taking off.

Enrollment has jumped about 10% in 16 elementary archdiocesan schools this year due to new tuition assistance programs sponsored by the Catholic school system and private organizations, said Vincent Clark, director of school marketing and public relations for the archdiocese of Washington.

On Sept. 28 in Washington, a group of 35 business and political leaders announced a plan to distribute $172 million in scholarships to allow more than 35,000 children in 38 cities to attend the schools of their choice through The Children's Scholarship Fund.

School choice “is going to become an important issue,” said Prof. Edward Smith, director of the American Studies Program at American University in Washington.

Smith criticized Marion Barry, Jesse Jackson, and other Democratic politicians who have lived in Washington and sent their children to private schools, while still opposing school choice. “They don't want people to ask” where they're sending their children, he said. Most people assume the political leaders are supporting the public schools, said Smith, who is a third-generation Washingtonian and a Catholic convert.

Three of the four leading candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary had attended Catholic high school, but none supported school choice, according to The Washington Post. One candidate, Councilman Kevin Chavous, sends his two children to Catholic schools in Washington, according to The Post.

Schwartz sent her three children to D.C. public schools; by the time Williams moved to the district about three years ago, his now 23-year-old daughter had already graduated from high school.

Although D.C.'s leading politicians may give their thumbs down to school choice initiatives, many people who work in the front lines with children appear to support school choice.

“There's a lot of grass-roots support for school choice, but it's not very well organized,” said Virginia Walden, a single mother who works with charter schools and soon plans to leave that job to become executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice.

Walden became involved in school choice after sending her 16-year-old son William to Archbishop Carroll High School last fall on a scholarship. “People say what a nice boy he is now, but two years ago, I was calling the police to speak with that young man. He thought no one cared. He was skipping school,” she said.

“I want every parent to have that vision” of what their children are capable of doing when teachers care about them and hold them acountable, Walden continued.

“It brings tears to my eyes,” she said, to come home now and see her son doing his homework. In the public school her son used to attend, “they barely knew I was in the classroom,” she quoted him as saying.

Retired Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) tried to convince Walden to run for D.C. mayor earlier this year, after reading an opinion/editorial she had written for The Post. She was flattered when Pressler looked her up in the telephone book and came to visit her, she recalled. “He really cares about the kids,” she said.

Hannah Hawkins, director of Children of Mine Youth Center Inc. in the Anacostia area of Washington, strongly backs school choice. Her organization serves 60 to 85 children who come regularly after school. She feeds and clothes the children, tutors them, conducts a Bible study class, and also sponsors an adoption and foster care program.

Hawkins, a parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Anacostia, says there is a lot of grassroots support for school choice in D.C. Hawkins, the mother of five grown children, recently directed scholarship money to one student to attend Archbishop Carroll High.

“Kids have to survive on the streets by using their wits in this city, so if they're in a private school, I know they'll do well,” she said.

writes from William Murray Kensington, Md.