Bush, D.C. mayor push for voucher program in nation's capital

WASHINGTON (BP)--The latest battleground for education choice is the country's capital.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams is pushing school vouchers, with President Bush and members of Congress as his fellow advocates. His effort is drawing plenty of critics, however.

"The reason I support vouchers is because I think things are improving in the school system, but we can't wait," Williams said July 8 in receiving this year's Urban Innovator Award from the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation, CNS News reported. "Thousands of children can't wait until we do everything we need to do to improve the school system.

"You can't have a city that's going to survive, let alone prevail, if you don't have a solid middle class," he said. "To me, introducing and injecting choice and competition is the only way we're going to start reversing that tide and reversing that trend and bring back on a long-term, sustainable basis that middle class."

Williams' comments came a week after Bush applauded the mayor's efforts and presented a school-choice proposal.

"The District of Columbia needs to improve. Let me just put it bluntly," the president said July 1 at a local charter school. "There are some great schools in the district, and there are some lousy schools in the district."

Bush called "unacceptable" recent tests that showed the district ranked below every state in basic skills in the fourth and eighth grades.

He wants Congress to provide $75 million for a "choice incentive fund," the president said. Of that amount, $15 million would go toward a school-choice program in the District of Columbia. The vouchers will be for use in public or private schools, including religious ones, of the parents' choosing at a maximum of $7,500.

"It is the beginning of an experiment that will show whether or not private school choice makes a difference in quality education in public schools," Bush said. "I happen to believe it will."

Two bills that provide vouchers for low-income Washington families have been introduced in the House of Representatives. Rep. Tom Davis, R.-Va., is sponsoring the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act, H.R. 2556, which follows Bush's proposal. Rep. Jeff Flake, R.-Ariz., is sponsoring the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act, H.R. 684. Flake's legislation would permit parents to use the vouchers in Maryland and Virginia schools, as well as D.C. schools. Davis' measure limits their use to the district.

The House Government Reform Committee is scheduled to vote on the Davis bill July 10.

Stiff opposition comes from district residents, as well as teacher organizations and strict-separationist church-state groups.

National Education Association President Reg Weaver said he hoped Bush and other officials "will turn their attention away from vouchers." Weaver said "there is no consistent evidence that private school tuition vouchers improve educational opportunities for students in private or public schools."

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the proposal "yet another attempt by President Bush and his allies to move this country toward a system of taxpayer-funded religion. This bill is not about helping poor children; it's about undermining church-state separation."

Milwaukee, Wis., has had a voucher program since 1990, and it has resulted in improved education, Mayor John Norquist said at the Manhattan Institute event. "We have better public schools; we have better parochial schools, and we have better and more private schools," Norquist said, according to CNS News.

A recent poll showed most African-Americans give the schools in their area a low grade and a majority would place their children in charter or private schools. The survey, commissioned by Black America's Political Action Committee, found 62 percent of blacks graded the schools in their area at C or lower. It also showed 52 percent would move their children from public schools to charter or private schools if given the opportunity.

The survey was conducted in June among 1,800 African-American registered voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld last year a school-choice program in Cleveland, Ohio, that permitted the use of vouchers at religious schools. The high court ruled the program was "entirely neutral with respect to religion" and did not offend the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion.


(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: IN SUPPORT OF VOUCHERS.

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