Tracy Tucker considers herself one of the lucky ones. Her children, Nicholas and Noelle, are enrolled in Community Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., which provides its students with a quality education. But when she looks across the street, she sees a neighbor who has tried time and again to rescue her daughter from the public-school system, only to be disappointed by long lines and waiting lists. As Tracy says, “I believe all mothers deserve to control where their children go to school.”
In the next few days, Congress will determine whether or not hundreds of D.C. parents get a say in their children’s education. Congress plans to complete its appropriations process by passing what it calls an “omnibus bill” — a mammoth piece of legislation that crams all remaining bills into one, spending hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money in one fell swoop. Omnibus bills become so bloated by last-minute pork that no one really knows what’s in them until well after they become law. Yet for mothers like Tracy, what’s left out may be more important that what’s jammed in.
A D.C. school-choice program, which was funded in the House-passed D.C. appropriations bill, offers low-income Washington parents the promise of scholarships worth up to $7,500. Those scholarships could pay private elementary or secondary-school tuition for hundreds of D.C. children. They would make a huge difference in the lives of low-income D.C. families and cost taxpayers about $10 million — not even a rounding error in a more than two trillion-dollar budget.
Like many of her friends, Tracy believes that this school-choice provision is critical for the city. Despite spending $12,000 per pupil — the highest per-child expenditure in the nation — the Washington, D.C., public-school system is in perpetual crisis. The nation’s capital boasts the lowest score on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a national standardized test. Many schools are unsafe and crumbling.
Tracy knows the frustrations felt not only by parents, but also by the students who receive worthless educations. She describes one D.C. graduate she knows who was forced to enroll in GED classes after high school because he lacked the basic language skills required to advance in the workplace.
Given the obvious need for reform and the support of the local community — from D.C. parents, like Tracy, and from critical leaders, such as Mayor Anthony Williams — the D.C. school-choice provision should be a slam-dunk in Congress. Unfortunately, the program is in a precarious position because it directly benefits only those families living in the District.
Even members of Congress who believe that D.C. parents deserve more options and who support the concept of school choice are being tempted to let this provision slip. These members are understandably anxious to go home to their own families and districts, not stay and fight for a program that doesn’t affect their constituents. The teachers’ unions — who view all plans that allow students to escape from government-run schools as a threat to their monopoly, and ultimately, to their paychecks — will oppose any omnibus bill that includes D.C. choice.
But as Tracy knows, this program isn’t just about the D.C. children who will receive scholarships. This is a fight over principle. Every mother desires to do what’s best for her children, to ensure that they have a chance to do well in life. That’s why school quality is one of the most important determinants of where people live. District parents eligible for scholarships under the House-passed provision would make less than $35,000 per year for a family of four. These families can’t afford to move to neighborhoods with quality public schools. D.C.’s charter schools — while an oasis for the lucky parents like Tracy — are full, and many have long lists of students waiting to enroll. As a result, too many D.C. parents find their children trapped in government schools that will disadvantage them for the rest of their lives.
Children living in the capital of the wealthiest nation on earth deserve better. Congress must make sure that before it adjourns, it passes this small initiative that will mean big things for Tracy Tucker’s neighbors.
Carrie L. Lukas is director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum.