It was 1997 when Congress first tried to appropriate money outside the normal budget for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Fund, which provided vouchers that would get 1,800 kids out of Washington’s dysfunctional public schools and into private alternatives. The bill survived a filibuster by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who derided it as a “foolish ideological experiment.” Kennedy won that round: President Clinton vetoed the bill. But it was reintroduced under President Bush and became law in 2003 as a five-year pilot program.
By that time, the way had been paved by a variety of private scholarships, charter schools, and other forms of school choice. Mike Lynch, then reason’s Washington editor, wrote about them in “Rampaging Toward Choice” (January 2000), in which he found school choice supporters throughout Washington’s black community. “These mothers and grandmothers are the very people in whose name liberal Democrats and public school officials have long been designing government programs,” Lynch wrote. “Now the help these families want most is help leaving government schools.”
After some modest progress in school performance and governance, particularly after the appointment of celebrated Superintendent Michelle Rhee, the D.C. school system received shocking news: The newly empowered Democratic Party, as part of its “omnibus” federal spending package, voted in March to end the voucher program after the 2009-10 school year. Kennedy’s office issued a statement celebrating the death of the scholarship fund, falsely claiming that it “takes funds from very needy public schools to send students to unaccountable private schools.” Two weeks later, after it was too late, a federal study showed voucher recipients clearly outperforming the public school kids they left behind.
There’s a small glimmer of hope for kids already in the program. President Barack Obama’s daughters attend Sidwell Friends, one of Washington’s best private schools, and a few of their classmates are beneficiaries of the D.C. voucher program. The day after Obama laid out his own education plan, his press secretary said the president believes “it wouldn’t make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system.” But he also said “the president doesn’t believe that vouchers are a long-term answer to our educational problems.” So a few kids might make it safely to high school graduation in the private schools. But nine years after Lynch’s article, reform remains elusive for those stuck in the D.C. public schools.