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Last week, when the House of Representatives voted to make the District the site of the first federally funded school-voucher program, local politicos were outraged by the violation of the city’s home rule—not to mention Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ decision to side with the Republicans pushing the measure. If passed by the Senate, the vouchers will help pay for 1,300 or so D.C. kids to attend private schools, at up to $7,500 apiece.

The performance of the pilot project in the District is likely to dictate whether more such programs spread across the country. So local and national figures, from D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, have vowed to defeat the measure. Vouchers, foes argue, would send funds to religious schools, violating the separation of church and state, and would siphon scarce resources from cash-strapped public schools.

“The public should not be forced to fund religious schools that are not accountable to the taxpayers,” declared the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, in a prepared statement. “At a time when budgets are tight, our first priority must be improving and strengthening public schools.”

If voucher opponents really want to boost public schools, though, they should clam up and just get out of the way. All these warnings about the perils of government-backed religion are mushy and abstract. If you want to make the case that vouchers are evil, let them fly in the District.

D.C. may look like a laboratory for new policy solutions. But it’s the kind of laboratory where the ethyl-alcohol supply keeps dwindling and somebody fenced the triple-beam balance to a crack dealer. From public health care to federal housing initiatives, the District and its creative residents have demonstrated tremendous proficiency at wrecking idealistic government programs designed to provide “flexibility and choice” to poor residents.

Flexible spending is never more flexible than it is in this town. At the first whiff of a fresh pot of money for the disadvantaged, a familiar drama unfolds. First, when the funds become available, the scammers come calling, claiming relevant expertise. Then funding recipients start showing up at public functions in Jaguars and shopping for flat-panel TVs. After a year or two, the Washington Post runs a Sunday Page One exposé, showing how cash meant for poor kids ended up being spent at Neiman Marcus. The city promises to create a task force to investigate, and at least one government employee gets the ax. And the disadvantaged shrug it off and wait for someone else to come along and screw them a new way.

Pick a public service in the District and see what happens when the federal government starts outsourcing it. In the late ’70s, Congress came up with an innovative plan to take care of the mentally and physically disabled via legal advocacy groups. So the District designated IPACHI, a nonprofit group, as the city’s official protection and advocacy agency. Unfortunately, instead of keeping tabs on patients in St. Elizabeths or retarded people housed at the former Forest Haven and D.C. Village, IPACHI focused on running a “Christmas toy store” charity that put its director on TV. Federal audits repeatedly found that the agency did virtually no legal work; Yetta Galiber, the former executive director, used the federally funded office to run an Amway distributorship and to give contracts to her own children. By the time the feds shut IPACHI down, in 1995, hundreds of thousands of dollars had disappeared and Galiber had retired to the Virgin Islands. Dozens of disabled people died at Forest Haven and D.C. Village, meanwhile, before the U.S. Department of Justice finally closed the institutions—without a peep from IPACHI.

Education, with its scattered sites and low expectations, is especially ripe for the plucking. In 1995, when the District desperately needed to create more programs for troubled kids, it

wasn’t St. Albans officials who came knocking but Jeffrey Robinson, a 26-year-old insurance broker with a criminal record and an $87,000 federal tax lien. Robinson, who had no college degree, won an $825,000 city contract to start a school for emotionally disturbed kids. His credential? He’d been a special-ed student himself. The Washington Post reported that his Kedar School hired people with prison records—including one who was still in a halfway house—to work with students. And Robinson personally made off with some $200,000 before the city caught up with him. He ended up going to prison for bank fraud.

Such vultures are no doubt already circling over the voucher project, drawn by the prospect of $10 million in federal funds meant for poor D.C. families. Just look at the luminaries who surfaced last time Congress foisted a similar education-reform scheme on the District—charter schools.

There are Rollie and Gwendolyn Kimbrough, whose résumé included loads of tax liens, lawsuits, and a bankruptcy—and little experience running a school—when they opened the Jos-Arz Therapeutic Public Charter School. In a brief two years, the couple burned through $8 million in city money on a mere 55 students, with little to show for it.

Then, of course, there’s Mary A.T. Anigbo, the charter-school principal convicted in 1998 of assaulting a Washington Times reporter who attempted to see what, exactly, Anigbo was doing with all her city money. Even after her Marcus Garvey Public Charter School shut down amid allegations of financial mismanagement and nepotism, Anigbo attempted to get back on the charter-school gravy train. A year after she was fired from Garvey, she popped up on the staff of the new Kwame Nkrumah School, which city chartering authorities ultimately refused to fund,

suspecting that it was simply Marcus Garvey reconstituted.

If Anigbo decides to reconstitute Kwame Nkrumah as a private school that takes federal vouchers, though, city officials won’t be able to get in her way. Private schools are exempt from even the lax standards that govern D.C. charter schools, all but guaranteeing that we’ll be hearing down the road how the squandered voucher money never made it to the kids it was intended to help.

Voucher proponents insist that the power of the marketplace is all that’s needed to keep tabs on public dollars; parents won’t continue sending their kids to an underperforming school, they argue. But if that model held true in D.C., parents would by now have quit sending their kids to the Marriott Hospitality Public Charter High School, where more than 90 percent of students score below basic on standardized math tests—and which failed even to provide a training kitchen for its burger-flipping curriculum.

No, Norton and her allies can be pretty safe in knowing that regardless of the concept’s merits, vouchers in the District are a disaster in the making. And like charter schools, they’re likely to make the regular old failing public schools look better than ever. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian.