Rampaging Toward Choice

Why parents in Washington, D.C., are embracing vouchers and charter schools--and what that says about public schools.

Bernice Gates started what she calls her education "ram-page" back in 1997, when her agreement with her grandson Silky broke down. Gates had promised Silky, a seventh-grader, $5 a week to tutor his little brother Derek, but things weren't working out. Silky was doing his part, teaching his brother while earning A's and B's at Bertie Backus Middle School, a public school in northeast Washington, D.C. The problem was that Derek, who attended third grade at a small church school, was already working at a more advanced level than Silky was.

"The difference was the school," says Gates. She says Silky was earning top marks for showing up and being quiet, but he wasn't learning much. "I knew I had to get my kids out of public school," she concluded. "I knew my kids had to be taught the way Derek was being taught."

Gates, mother of five and grandmother of five, was then raising six children. Derek attended Calvary Christian Academy on a scholarship provided by her minister. But the others were in government schools, and Gates wanted them out. The problem was how. Gates, who had left her abusive husband, was relying on welfare while she earned a B.A. in social work at the University of the District of Columbia. She pulled Silky out of school--he was being picked on for studying anyway--and counted on God to provide. Gates believes he did.

Derek's teacher told Gates about the Washington Scholarship Fund, which provides partial scholarships for low-income D.C. students to attend private schools. Gates applied and secured scholarships for three of her children. Silky would attend eighth grade at a D.C. Catholic school. Derek would stay at Calvary Christian, where he would be joined by William, who was entering kindergarten.

But the move to private school didn't come easy. Silky failed his entrance exams, and Gates had to make a personal plea for him. "He didn't come close," says Gates. Once enrolled, Silky found the work difficult: He earned straight F's. Since he was accustomed to A's and B's, that destroyed his self-esteem. "Do you know how devastating it is to think that you are getting it and to find out that you aren't?" says Gates.

Finances proved challenging, too. At one point, Gates was spending $700 a month--half of her income--on education, including her own. One month, she reports, she had $70 left after bills, for a seven-member family. Gates couldn't make the rent, so she moved into a friend's basement. "We lost our home, but they didn't lose their place in school," says a defiant Gates. "That's how much their education means to me."

You've just met a representative beneficiary of school choice in Washington. Many such parents are, like Gates, black women raising kids or grandkids on their own. They are not "anti-public schools." Like Gates, many are graduates of the same school system from which they seek to extricate their kids. They place an extremely high value on education and are making often-heavy sacrifices in their children's interests. Frequently, they are religious, so God in the schools causes them no concern. But they aren't members of the so-called religious right, demonized by People for the American Way and other anti-scholarship groups as the force behind school choice.

In fact, these mothers and grandmothers are the very people in whose name liberal Democrats and public school officials have long been designing government programs. Now the help these families want most is help leaving government schools.

Since the first public voucher program started in Milwaukee in 1990, an important shift has taken place. Those concerned with the daily struggles of low-income Americans have joined forces with the ideological proponents of school choice to support vouchers. New York University public administration professor Joseph Viteritti, who once worked in the New York City public school system and has just completed a book, Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society, speaks of a shift from the "market model" to an "opportunity model."

It's less of a shift, however, than it is a piling on. As publicly funded voucher programs got going in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and private programs sprouted in cities across the country, it became clear that the main beneficiaries of school choice are low-income, urban parents. They have, in turn, become the driving force behind school choice. In 1998, Bernice Gates took her "rampage" to The Oprah Winfrey Show, an appearance that introduced hundreds of thousands of low-income parents to the potential benefits of school choice. Polls show that school choice is far more popular with minorities than with whites, and most popular with low- and modest-income minorities. A 1998 Washington Post poll found that 65 percent of D.C. blacks with annual incomes under $50,000 supported taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. A 1998 national poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the leading black think tank, found that 65 percent of blacks 26 to 35 years old supported vouchers, compared to 46 percent of whites in this age group.

This support poses a dilemma for Democrats, who are nominally committed to the poor on the one hand and politically beholden to public school teachers unions on the other. So far, civil rights organizations, which provide moral cover for Democratic politicians and unions, have stuck with the anti-voucher coalition. But there are dissatisfied rumblings.

Urban League President Hugh Price has warned the education establishment not to assume the support of black parents. In September 1999 the NAACP fired Colorado Springs branch President Willie Breazell after he wrote a column favoring school choice. But the same month, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young told an NAACP awards banquet, "If you're in an...under-achieving school, then you have a right to seek a voucher to go to a school where you can be guaranteed some level of achievement."

Private voucher programs, by contrast, are politically irresistible. President Bill Clinton supports them and has even hosted recipients at the White House. The Children's Scholarship Fund, the largest private scholarship foundation, boasts a bipartisan board that includes Martin Luther King III and Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), and Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Teachers unions argue against school choice on the grounds that public money shouldn't go to unaccountable private and religious institutions, but they have yet to come up with an effective argument against private scholarship money. The best they can offer is the claim that private vouchers are a false promise because the money is not guaranteed forever, and the suspicion that they are a prelude to universal vouchers. National Education Association President Bob Chase fretted in USA Today that private vouchers are a "Trojan horse for public education."

In the debate over school choice, charter schools, and public schools, the tendency has been to set one against the other, comparing and contrasting approaches in a quest for a single best educational model. But in D.C., where a solid charter school law and an influx of private scholarship money have created new schooling options in the last two years, the different systems have been interacting in unexpected ways.

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