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.

Parents receiving vouchers often have chosen to keep one or more children in the public schools. Sometimes their decision is based on financial concerns; with annual incomes averaging $17,000, any financial setback may force them to pull all their kids from private schools. But sometimes parents are satisfied with a particular public school.

Private and charter schools, in turn, rely on the expertise, skills, and pensions of former public school employees. These teachers are happy to apply their skills in a rewarding environment, and teachers' pensions have been a factor in staffing alternative schools and keeping costs down. Charter schools, which remain part of the government school system, are by far the most popular new option for low-income parents. They have also become an option for families with kids in private schools. In other words, charter schools have begun to compete with private schools, and that has some conservatives grumbling.

It's an evolving mix. Still, as options have emerged for D.C. parents with modest incomes, some things are becoming clear. Urban parents want a choice, even when it means making personal sacrifices. They want schools that provide safety, respect, solid academics, and Bible-based values.

In Washington, where school officials routinely confiscate knives, guns, and razors, parents put a premium on safety, as they do in urban systems across the country. In the first seven months of the 1997-98 school year, there were 80 assaults with a deadly weapon, and 313 simple assaults reported in the D.C. schools, a system serving about 80,000 students at that time. Two students, both 16, were killed. Neither murder occurred on school property, but the incidents reflect a context of community violence in which the schools attempt to function.

D.C. parents also crave what no insulated monopoly provides: institutions that are responsive and respectful. They want their phone calls returned, their questions answered, and updates on their children's progress. Their goal is a simple one: to have their children prepared for college or, at a minimum, for a self-sufficient life. Given that D.C. public schools spend $9,123 per student a year, those demands are not unreasonable. Yet a third of the students drop out before graduating, and those that graduate function below 12th grade level. The University of the District of Columbia reports that it takes two years of remedial work to get a city graduate up to par. And these are the students who go on to college. It's easy to see why government school enthusiasts are incredulous that children could be better educated at far less cost.

Other structural issues are emerging as well. The longer children stay in D.C. government schools, for example, the further behind they fall. This has implications for political reforms as well as private programs. Private schools can get a second-grader caught up quickly, but an eighth-grader who is working at a fourth-grade level presents an almost insurmountable challenge.

Good, relatively low-cost private schools exist that will welcome former public school students and work to bring them up to grade level. And where money is available, myriad organizations will found new schools. Roughly one third of D.C.'s charter schools are specialized schools designed to meet the needs of the very students the public schools blame for their failures.

That is what Virginia Walden has discovered. Walden is executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, located in the basement of an apartment building four blocks from the headquarters of the National Education Association. She stumbled upon school choice when her son William started to get in trouble at Roosevelt High School. "As soon as he started going there he became a terror," says Walden. "He said if he did well in school he would get labeled `smart' and harassed." When he brought home all F's without warning, Walden knew she had to get him out. "Two teachers didn't even know his name," says an exasperated Walden, who was active in the school's PTA. A neighbor offered to help send William to Archbishop Carroll, a Catholic high school. "We saw an improvement right away," she says.

Walden decided to be the same kind of good neighbor to other D.C. parents in need. "If I have an education and parents who can support me, and I feel backed up against a wall," she says, "then what about other parents?" She is an education broker for low-income D.C. parents, matching families to schools. "We have become a one-stop issue shop for poor parents," says Walden, a warm woman whose deep laugh serves her well in her work with the public.

Having served more than 1,000 parents since 1998, she says the issues are simple: quality of education, safety, and responsiveness. "The biggest complaint we get is that traditional public education doesn't encourage parents to be part of their kids' education--and they don't say it that nicely," says Walden.

In 1997, about the time Bernice Gates was beginning her "rampage," the Republican-led Congress was attempting to assist her. It eventually passed the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act, which dedicated $7 million in new government money for D.C., to be used for $3,200 scholarships for 1,800 students. Democrats argued that the vouchers were unconstitutional, that the money wouldn't help enough children, and that it would build a new bureaucracy. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who led a filibuster, derided the bill as a "foolish ideological experiment." D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting representative in Congress, provided cover for the anti-scholarship forces, assuring her colleagues that the people of D.C. didn't want "vouchers imposed on the District of Columbia." President Clinton agreed and vetoed the bill in May 1998.

At the same time that Democrats were working to block federal funds for low-income children, private philanthropists were focusing on scholarships as a means to provide parents with opportunity. Private scholarship programs, which typically fund about half the tuition of low-cost private schools, were already operating in 30 cities, serving 23,625 kids with more than 300,000 on waiting lists. At the time, the Washington Scholarship Fund was supporting 239 D.C. students.

In 1997, financier Theodore Forstmann and Wal-Mart heir John Walton decided to pump some liquidity into the D.C. private school market. Each promised to contribute $1 million a year for three years to the scholarship fund, enabling it to provide 1,000 more scholarships, each worth 30 percent to 60 percent of tuition, up to a cap of $1,700. More than 7,600 D.C. families applied.

Shocked, then heartened, by the demand, Forstmann and Walton decided to take the program national. They set up the Children's Scholarship Fund, donating $50 million each and announcing their intention to raise more. The demand was overwhelming. In 1998, more than 1.25 million families applied for 40,000 scholarships. In Baltimore, 44 percent of eligible students applied. One-third of the eligible students in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Newark, and New Orleans also wanted in.

Charter schools are essentially deregulated government schools that receive the per-pupil allotment of money so long as they stick to their mission. Minnesota was the first state to allow charter schools, in 1991; there are now 1,800 such schools serving 350,000 children in 36 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Charter schools came to Washington in 1996, when President Clinton signed the D.C. School Reform Act. Schools started forming immediately. This year, 31 schools will educate roughly 7,000 students, nearly one in 11 students in city schools.

Ashlee Williams, a 12-year-old with a mischievous smile, is one of them. Washington's charter schools have tended to the specific: Schools have been founded to serve students with learning disabilities--roughly 10 percent of the D.C. government school population--and students who have been in the juvenile justice system, the very types of students public school apologists blame for the system's dismal performance and then cite as the reason government schools are needed. Charter schools providing rigorous math and science education have also been established, as have schools devoted to public policy and technology. Ashlee attends a unique charter school: the nation's only public boarding school, the SEED Public Charter School. Each of its students must come from D.C.

Ashlee's needs are special, according to her mother, Angelia Orr-Williams. Ashlee is bright. Having combined second and third grade in a single year, she was ready to attend seventh grade at 11 years old. Angelia planned to send Ashlee, who sings in the church choir, to the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts, which specializes in music. But before that loomed middle school, where so many of the city's children have been derailed. Says Angelia, "I was dreading it."

Ashlee was assigned to Ronald Brown Middle School. It wasn't so much the academics Angelia was worried about. "They had high credentials," she says, but her concerns centered on safety. Ashlee would be two years younger than most of her classmates, and, says Angelia, "She tends to be feisty at times. She gives off body language. I didn't want that to be misinterpreted by kids from the hood."

Private school wasn't an option. Her husband Andrei, Ashlee's father, was serving time, and Angelia didn't think she could make tuition on her salary as a legal assistant. Riding the bus one day, she saw a sign about choosing a charter school. She called the number, attended a charter school fair, and settled on the SEED School.

Ashlee's time at SEED has not been without turbulence. She has found the work challenging--skipping a grade in the D.C. government schools doesn't necessarily mean one is working at grade level--and the attitude that her mother so worried about has continued to cause problems. Ashlee is the first one to admit it. "I get in trouble with my mouth," she confesses. Ashlee was suspended for a week during her first year, which at SEED meant she was sent home for home learning. But SEED includes parents in the schooling process: Angelia has been called in more than once to discuss Ashlee's progress, and attitude, with the school principal.

Ashlee has spent a month and a half on probation. Still, nobody's getting beaten, she's not being harassed for learning, and she's planning to attend college. She'd like to go to Stanford, which she visited last year with other students from SEED.

If the demand for scholarships across the country demonstrates anything, it's the deep dissatisfaction of city parents with their assigned government schools. People just don't give up free services, or services they've already paid for, to spend 10 percent or more of their income to purchase similar services. Yet this is exactly what the 1.25 million parents who applied for Children Scholarship Fund scholarships last year did.

"These people are low-income, yet they are willing to give up a free education to pay for one with significant costs," says NYU's Viteritti, who is appalled by the political effort to block school choice. "The hypocrisy behind it. The political leaders who say we need to support public schools don't have to send their kids to public schools," he observes. "I don't know how long it can be sustained."

However hard it may be for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson--who send their kids to the best schools money can buy--to keep low-income parents from exercising school choice, it's harder yet for parents with scholarships to keep their kids in school, uniforms, and extracurricular activities. Rose Blassingame, for example, is sharing one bedroom with three of her granddaughters, just one sacrifice she is willing to make to keep her kids enrolled in private schools.

Like Bernice Gates, Blassingame wants the grandchildren she is raising to have the best education they can get. Rose has struggled all her life to be educated. The oldest of 14 kids, she was born and raised in Washington, attending what she thinks were then better schools. Her parents thought the way for a woman to gain financial security was through marriage. When she was 14, her father pulled her out of school to get married. Fifteen months later, she had her first child. Another 15 months passed and another child came. She went to work at D.C. General Hospital, where she would work for the next 29 years. She was 17 years old, working an eight-hour day and attending school at night. At 19, she left her husband, took her two babies and moved into her grandmother's basement.

Now, at 49, she's rearing four grandkids. Rose was satisfied with the elementary school her eldest, Franciscoe, attended. But when she started looking for middle schools--and she visited just about all of them--she didn't like what she saw. "I found out there were some good ones," she says. But the best, Jefferson, was unavailable.

Her requirements weren't unreasonable. She was looking for good education in a safe environment. "If you are going to school and are afraid to go, no matter how well you're taught, you're not going to learn anything," she says.

She found private schools expensive. But she was ready to make the sacrifice and pay the $2,600 it would take to put Franciscoe in St. Thomas More. In 1997, a friend told her about the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF). She called, was invited down for an interview, and was offered a scholarship for Franciscoe. She then decided to send his sister, Diamonesha, to St. Thomas More, too, and pay the same amount. This year, her youngest, Lapria, started kindergarten at St. Thomas More. Diamonesha is in second grade, and Franciscoe is now a freshman at Archbishop Carroll.

All this comes at considerable cost. Last year, Blassingame's portion of tuition at St. Thomas More for Franciscoe and Diamonesha was $175 a month. This year it's down to $150, thanks to assistance from the archdiocese. In addition, she faced miscellaneous expenses that parents don't face with government schools and that don't count as costs when WSF scholarships are calculated. Franciscoe's uniforms, for example, cost $670. His books cost another $540.

Covering these costs means giving up the monthly meal out, a summer amusement park trip, and visits to the beauty parlor. "I haven't been to the hairdresser in three years," says Rose. For Franciscoe, a polite child who answers question with a disarming "yes, sir" or "no, sir" followed by a toothy smile, it meant spending all but $31 of the $347 he earned at his summer job on the gray slacks, white shirts, and green blazer that constitute his uniform.

And then there are the living quarters. Seven hundred dollars a month buys Rose and her five housemates a two-bedroom apartment in the city's southwest quadrant. Franciscoe gets one room. Rose's aunt, who has been living with her for 13 years after spending most of her life on the streets, gets the couch. Rose, Lapria (5), Diamonesha (7), and Shantese (8) share the other bedroom. "Look around," Rose says, gesturing around her comfortably furnished but crowded apartment. "No one here has space. There's nowhere to go to be alone."

After a year of having Diamonesha in private school, Rose can see where the local government schools are lacking. "The kids who went to pre-K at St. Thomas More were already reading," she explains with some surprise, as if she'd been duped. "The public school kids were just ready to read."

Diamonesha had to catch up, but after a year she made the principal's honor roll. For Franciscoe it's been a tougher haul. His first year at St. Thomas More was challenging, and he struggled at first to earn C's and B's. There were many nights when Franciscoe and Rose stayed up past midnight doing homework. But his academics improved, and the next year he earned mostly B's and some A's. Now at Archbishop Carroll, Franciscoe is again struggling with English and religion courses, and Rose thinks she will have to get him a tutor. "He started at a good school at a later date. That's what hurting him," says Rose. "He got into the good school too late."

Franciscoe, who wants to attend Howard University and become a doctor or a lawyer, will probably succeed. But Rose's late date observation is borne out in the experience of others as well as hard data. A 1997 report from the D.C. Control Board on the city's schools concluded that "the longer a student stays in the District's public school system, the less likely they are to succeed." On the Stanford 9 Achievement Test, one in three D.C. fourth graders scored "below basic" on reading. One in two graduating seniors did. On math, three in ten fourth grade students and three in four seniors scored "below basic."

Private and charter school principals report that the longer students stay in government schools, the longer it takes them to catch up to grade level, if they ever do. Nelson Smith, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, says that many charter school principals were shocked at how far behind their kids were. One high school, which started with a single ninth-grade class, held back three-fourths of its entering class.

Voucher opponents love to point out that government schools must take everyone, while private schools are able to set standards, without any government oversight, and select their students. As D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton claimed on the floor of the House, "Choice, therefore, will not rest with the parents but with the religious and private schools that will apply their own standards to the admission and retention of each child."

A related argument charges that few private schools exist in the price range of the vouchers, and the ones that do are of poor quality. Said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) on the House floor: "This notion that there is going to be this great choice for families is really a mistake. It really is a fraud. They are not going to have the choice to go to Sidwell Friends or St. Albans and the great private schools."

Such arguments are infuriating to parents of public school students, especially in the District of Columbia, where one in 10 students is deemed in need of special education. For roughly 1,000 of these students, the D.C. government schools do offer something--a gold-plated government-funded voucher to a private institution. The institutions to which the district sends its special-ed students are quite expensive. In 1997, the last year for which the D.C. schools provide data, it spent $21 million to send 1,079 students to private institutions--in effect, a $19,500 voucher. That same year, Democrats in Congress claimed that $7 million in scholarship funds would destroy government schools.

Some students require yet higher expenses. Benjamin Eby, whom The Washington Post describes as a "bright student who had writing and behavior problems," needed $22,000 to attend a private school in Vermont. While Rose Blassingame shares a bedroom with three grandchildren, the D.C. government was paying for plane tickets, ski lessons, and a computer for Eby.

Of course, there are private schools with lower tuition, some in Washington.Twenty-three WSF-supported kids attend Nannie Helen Burroughs School, atop a hill in the far northeast corner of town. The school looks out on a welcoming playground, with a yellow-railed jungle gym amid leafy trees, and, across the street, a burned-out third-story apartment.

Founded in 1909 as a religious girls' school by the celebrated Burroughs, an African-American author, orator, businesswoman, and educator, it is today a full-service private school, with 200 students from pre-K through seventh grade. Its graduates have earned full scholarships to such schools as the well-known St. Albans, the alma mater of school-choice opponent Al Gore.

For $4,000 a year, less than half of what the public-school system spends on a student, Nannie Helen Burroughs offers parents classes of no more than 20 kids, classrooms wired for Internet access, a computer center, a library, Bible study, and a plethora of extracurricular activities. Principal Shirley Hayes knows all of the students and their parents. She doesn't test kids for admission, but after the first month of school she meets with all her teachers to discuss how each child is doing. Those who need remediation receive it. Those who need "enhancement"--the current term for working ahead--get that as well. Each student is tested in the spring. In addition, the school's counselor, a retired D.C. government school employee, stands ready to test any child, the results ready the same day, to diagnose any problems.

Hayes, like every other person in this story, is no enemy of public education. She spent much of her life in the city's schools, which she attended as a student and worked in as a teacher for 12 years, then 23 years more as a principal. In 1990, she won a Washington Post award for excellence, which hangs on her wall. After retiring, she took a six-month temporary assignment at Burroughs. That was six years ago.

Seventeen of her 38 staff members are also former government school employees. Says Hayes, "They left because of the bureaucracy, but they still have a desire to teach." With their government pensions, they are able to accept the lower salaries at Burroughs. "Many of my teachers are retired people on annuities," says Hayes. "Private schools don't pay well, so there's a lot of turnover. Mine don't leave."

Turnover may not be a problem for Hayes, but it can be for some scholarship students. Families that hit a tough financial stretch may be forced to remove their kids from private schools. Douglas Dewey, executive vice president of the Children's Scholarship Fund, expects one in six of the program's children to give up the scholarships. Private school principals say the most common reason parents leave is financial.

Bernice Gates, who swore an oath to God and herself that she'll never put her four privately schooled kids back into public schools, was almost forced to do just that earlier this year. Gates moved from her friend's basement, buying a four-bedroom home in Northeast Washington with help from a city government program. Her finances became even tighter, and she fell behind on her tuition payments. She hasn't heard back on a social work job she applied for in the D.C. government schools, and she's currently applying for overtime at her job in the D.C. Department of Health. If that doesn't come through, a noticeably saddened Gates says, she'll try to pick up another part-time job, although it's not clear when she'd have the time to work.

Meanwhile, her three youngest are no longer at Calvary Christian Academy. Having gotten into a financial bind, Gates was forced to move them to a less expensive school, which she says was particularly traumatic for Derek, who'd been in CCA since starting school. She's moved Derek and William to Holy Redeemer, the school that she credits with saving Silky's life.

Government school enthusiasts say we need to fix all public schools, not just give a few students a way out. Vouchers are frauds, they claim, since they don't pay full freight and often lead to challenges like those Gates is facing. We can expect to hear from our presidential candidates about education, especially government education. Republican hopeful George W. Bush is running soft TV ads in which he avers, "We should all make this solemn commitment: That every child is educated," and in which he promises to "challenge failure with charters and choice." On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley or Al Gore will talk solemnly about how we must fix public schools.

Rose Blassingame, testifying before the House Budget Committee in October, provided the appropriate response to the fix-the-schools argument. After apologizing for being self-interested, Blassingame told the congressmen about how she had heard a commentator on the radio say it would take six or seven years to fix D.C.'s schools. Said Blassingame, "Franciscoe doesn't have that long."