Voucher Debate Plays Out in the Capitol's Shadow

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Just a year ago, Virginia Walden thought she was losing her youngest son.

She believed 15-year-old William had potential, but she was afraid of what he was experiencing at his public high school here. His grades were dropping, his teachers called her repeatedly about discipline problems, and several times he ran away from home.

"The day the police brought him home, I didn't know what to do," Ms. Walden said softly during a recent interview in her home. One thing was certain, she vowed: Her "baby" would not return to Roosevelt High School. Thanks to a neighbor, she was able to find private scholarship money so William could attend a nearby Roman Catholic high school. Now, she hopes the day will come when others like her in the capital city can turn to federally funded vouchers for private and religious schools.

Federal Twist

Whether taxpayer dollars should go to help an embattled urban school system or provide a means of escape to private and parochial schools for a small number of the poorest students is a familiar debate in cities such as Cleveland and Milwaukee. But in this town, it's Congress that will decide.

Next week, the House is likely to again consider legislation that would provide vouchers of up to $3,200 to help impoverished children in Washington attend the private, religious, or public school of their choice. The measure, which passed the Senate last fall, squeaked through the House 203-202 as part of the District of Columbia appropriations bill last year, but was later removed. ("House Passes D.C. Voucher Bill 203-202; Veto Threatened," Oct. 15, 1997.)

Most congressional Republicans and a handful of liberal Democrats have signed on, but President Clinton has repeatedly vowed to veto any voucher legislation.

Since changing schools, William Walden, a tall, soft-spoken 10th grader, has improved his grades and discipline and set higher goals for himself, his mother proudly reported. William, a track star whose medals hang prominently in the family's living room, said he likes Archbishop Carroll High School--his new school--because he feels the teachers there take an interest in him.

Now, Ms. Walden, a Democrat who works for a charter school organization called Focus, wants to help other single mothers in Washington get access to alternatives for their children's education. But she knows that many of her neighbors in her Northeast Washington community of 1920s-style, neatly kept rowhouses and shabby apartment buildings don't agree that vouchers will mean a happy ending for all their children. Their perspectives echo the verbal back-and-forth in Congress.

A few blocks north of Ms. Walden's modest duplex, the Rev. Graylan S. Ellis-Hagler, the minister at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, has warned his congregation that the Washington voucher plan is not the solution to the 77,000-student school district's problems.

"It's going to help a few who manipulate the system, but what we need to do is guarantee every single child that they will have a good-quality public education," he said.

A member of the African-American Ministers Leadership Council, a national group sponsored by the liberal watchdog group People for the American Way, Mr. Ellis-Hagler is skeptical of the GOP-led Congress. He and other black ministers on the council say vouchers represent an attempt to defund public education and further segregate the students who would not receive vouchers.

Spur for Reform

What the measure's proponents envision is a system where some children are given vouchers for private and religious schools and others attend charter schools. The resulting exodus would help the traditional public schools reform and focus on the remaining students, backers say.

About 2,000 children would benefit from an "opportunity scholarship," or receive up to $500 for private tutoring services, according to the legislation's sponsors. They include both a member of the House gop leadership, Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a prominent Democrat who is the chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council once headed by President Clinton. The bill would authorize $8 million for the program in fiscal 1999 and $10 million for fiscal years 2000 to 2002.

Mr. Ellis-Hagler, though, argues that parents would be disappointed by how little a $3,200 voucher would buy.

In the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, elementary school tuition averaged $2,131 in school year 1996-97 while Catholic high school tuition this year ranges from $4,200 to a high of $13,100 a year, according to diocesan spokesman Vincent Clark. Other area private schools may cost more, however. For example, tuition at the prestigious St. Albans School--which includes grades 4 through 12--is $14,548 this year, said David Hardman, the school's admissions director.

Voucher opponents also argue that such a program is unnecessary because a rise in achievement in the public schools is within reach.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting representative to the House and a staunch opponent of Congress' rising role in the city's affairs, said that the appointment of Arlene Ackerman as the school district's new superintendent earlier this month shows that the schools have another chance to turn around. ("D.C. Schools Chief Announces Resignation," April 1, 1998.)

Support from Congress is crucial to that effort, Ms. Norton said. "The public schools are failing, but we're going to work with these public schools until they get right," she said at a recent gathering of voucher-bill opponents.

So far, no one has persuaded Washingtonian Taalib-Din Uqdah, the guardian of his 6-year-old niece and 11-year-old nephew, to keep the children in their public elementary school in the future.

"I am becoming afraid of what this system is not going to be offering them," Mr. Uqdah said. "I hope people understand that I can ill-afford to allow them to stay."

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