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The early 1980s may have been a time when money flowed into the District, but I remember it as a period of enormous financial pressure. As a struggling free-lance writer, I struggled to feed my daughter, buy decent clothing, pay rent and bills. Sometimes assignments were plentiful and my daughter and I dined out, but there were other times when I found myself in landlord-tenant court because I came up short. But my greatest concern during those years was my daughter’s education.

When she reached preschool age, my husband and I decided to place her in an African-centered, private educational institution where she would learn there is no shame and plenty of glory in being African-American. It was a grand gesture that comes with dreams all parents have for their children’s future, but our rich reverie was no match for our near-empty wallets. My husband was self-employed as a music promoter, and I was a part-time writer and community outreach worker. Even though we were broke, we knew public schools in the District were badly damaged and did not want to subject our daughter to an environment where children’s needs were consistently overwhelmed by political and territorial battles. We made the financial sacrifice and enrolled her in Watoto, a school founded by four Howard University graduates.

Our daughter blossomed under the care and attention of the staff at Watoto. As a preschooler, she learned about her American heritage in a way few D.C. public schoolers ever did: She knew all about the heroic efforts of slaves and free blacks who fought slavery and Jim Crow laws—she recognized their names and their faces. She also came to know the names of African countries and their leaders. By the first grade, I was amazed that she had already been instilled with a broad knowledge of African-American history and a love of literature.

Unfortunately, by the time she was ready for second grade, my husband and I were divorced and, although we decided to split the tuition, there were many times I had trouble meeting the $200-plus monthly payment. Sometimes I awoke wondering if that day would be the day school administrators, tired of my inability to pay, would send my daughter home. Luckily, the folks at Watoto were more interested in my daughter than in the tuition, so they allowed her to stay, even when the bill went unpaid for months.

I wasn’t the only parent struggling to meet the monthly tuition payments. Some parents met their obligations by working around the school, doing jobs that the administration might have had to contract out. Watoto operated, and still does, like a family. The school sometimes suffered for its generosity, but Baba Aygei, Mama Afia, and the other administrators and teachers didn’t seem focused on salaries or retirement accounts. The kids—my daughter and the 75-plus other children who attended the school—were first. Every day, the staff at Watoto sent a clear, unwavering message that education was paramount.

I was thrilled. What parent doesn’t want the best for her child?

Undoubtedly, Watoto could have flourished from an improved cash flow generated by timely tuition receipts. I certainly would have eagerly welcomed one of the tuition scholarships—commonly called vouchers—recently proposed in the congressionally designed school reform package. It could have provided even greater options for my daughter than my husband and I fathomed.

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But I have watched the D.C. Board of Education, the D.C. Council, and Congress dicker over educational reform, frittering away the opportunity to support and expand schools like Watoto. I ache for parents of school-age children—public education is a mess, and there isn’t a ladder out. Vouchers, which looked like they might level the playing field for low-income folks, have been politicized beyond any value.

Middle-income and rich parents have the resources and political clout to acquire the things they want for their children, including education in any of the private schools in the region. Poor parents live without those options. Education, which has traditionally served as the underclass’s vault to the American dream, is riddled with District dysfunction. Rather than offering escape from poverty, it ensures that bureaucrats and teachers retain their middle-class havens at the expense of the underclass. The game is unbelievably cynical, and by now even children know their needs are dead last on the city’s list of priorities.

The congressional school-reform proposal approved by the House as part of the D.C. appropriations bill for fiscal 1996 could have brought about some degree of educational equity for the poor. But with the recent compromise, conferees side-stepped one of the more controversial aspects of the plan—tuition vouchers—and unabashedly abandoned poor children, confining them to a fast-crumbling educational system.

There were encouraging signs to begin with. The House/Senate conferees agreed to a plan, which the full House already has passed, that set aside $15 million of new federal money for school-reform initiatives. The plan represented a massive intrusion into District control over schools, but then again, what’s to preserve? Crafted by Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) and Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), the plan created a residential school, private charter schools, and job training for high-school seniors. The package also provided funding to restructure existing curricula, renovate dilapidated school buildings, expand the Even Start program (low-income parents with basic literacy instruction and job training), expand elementary-level health and fitness programs, and expand professional development for teachers and principals.

Initially, $5 million of the total $15 million was to go to student financial scholarships. Three million dollars was to be used for tuition vouchers and $2 million would be used to cover fees for after-school programs in the D.C. Public Schools. Any family below the poverty line—$15,000 for a family of four—would be eligible to receive a $3,000 tuition scholarship. A maximum of $1,500 would be available to a family of four with income less than $28,000. And all families with income up to $28,000 could apply for the $500-per-child-per-year activity subsidy as part of the program.

But when it came time to smooth differences over the vouchers between the House and Senate reform packages, conferees wimped out and handed off critical decisions to the council—a body that has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to act decisively in matters affecting children. The Congress mumbled something about preserving home rule, but at a time when both the council and the mayor have abdicated their roles, giving lip service to home rule is a joke. As a result of the compromise, the council now will decide how much of the money gets ladled into which pots. The council could decide to put the entire $5 million into the pot for after-school activities and zero for tuition vouchers, which would mean the current school bureaucracy would get a multimillion dollar jolt; poor parents would get nothing, denied once again the educational choices of their more wealthy neighbors. The council and a yet-to-be-named seven-member board has until July to make the decision, or the money goes back to the federal coffers.

Trust them to screw it up, because when it comes to kids and schools, the D.C. Council is mentally challenged. Charter schools, another component of reform, provide a vivid lesson. Hoping to pre-empt Congress, the council’s Committee on Education developed its own charter-school bill. Charter schools are funded by taxpayer money, but are generally conceived and created independent of local educational bureaucracies. They are required to meet acceptable educational standards and may not discriminate in their admission policies, but otherwise are free to run their own show. When the education committee’s charter-school bill came up for a vote last week, Councilmembers Frank Smith and John Ray introduced a substitute measure that essentially would allow the ineffectual D.C. Board of Education to accredit new charter schools. There is plenty of empirical and historical evidence to demonstrate that no one knows less about developing innovative models of education than the board of education in the District.

Given lawmakers’ response to charter schools, you can bet that vouchers will be used to fortify the current educational bureaucracy rather than fund genuine alternatives.

“I don’t believe one public-school student who could benefit will ever see one penny of that [tuition] assistance, unless it is mandated by Congress,” says Jim Ford, staff director for the council’s education committee.

Politicians are the only ones served by the compromise. Republicans can use what they did in the District to placate the segment of the party eager to have school choice and education reform. Relieved elected officials in the District can say they stopped Congress from pushing too far into school business. But none of the half-measures will help poor parents and their children.

School reform has been a dominant issue in the District for more than 15 years. Opponents sing the same song—protect the status quo, which means guaranteeing jobs regardless of how poorly the schools perform.

“Many will lose their jobs, from sundries to teachers on up,” Frank Bolden, president of the Council School of Offices, said prior to the House vote. “Apart from the federal and D.C. governments, many people are employed by the school system. There will be a dent in job prospects in the future.” As opposed to the ongoing dent in the future of the District’s children, I guess.

Some education reform advocates, many of them comfortably middle class, helped hack the tuition voucher program under the guise of protecting public education. Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, calls tuition vouchers “disastrous.”

“Congress is saying we are going to give you money to ship your kids out. Haven’t we promised people a public education?” she asks. Rice-Thurston thinks that changes have to be made within the system and not from without. “Private schools are not the solution. If we encourage children to leave public schools, the schools would be so much worse than they are now. Teaching won’t improve because of the vouchers. Schools will shut down if children leave. Public education will be a mess.”

There is very little indication that vouchers would have the power to cripple the system any more than it already is. Before the House/Senate conferees struck their chumplike compromise with the city, only a maximum of 1,500 children would have been able to receive the $3,000 scholarship. Currently there are between 65,000 and 75,000 children enrolled in D.C. public schools. At the rate of 1,500 kids a year, it would have taken a long time to destroy the city’s public-school system.

Many wealthy and middle-class residents have left the city, and those who remain have found ways to squeeze the best from the collapsing system. Like hundreds of other savvy parents with political clout or connections within the school system, Rice-Thurston received permission to enroll her children in what some call the “public/private schools” of the District. She sends her children “out-of-boundary’’ to Wilson Senior High School and Alice Deal Junior High. Mayor Marion Barry used the same system to get his son into Wilson, which is located in Ward 3, although he lives in Ward 8.

But poor parents often are locked outside of this network, and in some instances they don’t even know it exists. Consequently, they are chained to the inner city—in many instances to the worst urban living offers—with no place to go and a school system decaying around them.

Half of the councilmembers don’t have children young enough for city schools, but those who do don’t have their children in them. Lightfoot, Chavous, and Ray (only his oldest child) all have their children in private schools. They can afford to do it—with or without vouchers.

“The scholarships will level the education playing field for poor children. We have to provide them with opportunities that they do not have now,” says Councilmember Lightfoot. “[The school system] operates as a monopoly not driven by the best interest of the child but controlled by the best interest of the bureaucracy.”

My story ended happily: Watoto never asked me to take my daughter out of school, although I was chronically short of tuition. When she entered the 11th grade, I decided I could do what other parents with clout in the city were doing. I plotted and maneuvered my child into Bell Multicultural High School. She had a wonderful two years.

But many of today’s working-class and poor parents lack similar options under the current system.

“There are many people who want to maintain the status quo and are blocking all reform,” Ford says regretfully. “It is the child’s education versus the adult’s paycheck. Why can’t the kids come first, just once?” CP