WASHINGTON -- Today marks the first day of classes for public school students in the nation's capital, a tardy opening that not only has embarrassed the city but helped turn it into a prime battleground for one of the country's most controversial school reform measures.
The three-week school delay -- the result of leaky roofs -- has fueled a campaign to create a school voucher program in the district. The plan: to use taxpayer dollars to send many Washington students to private, religious and alternative public schools.
"Good lord, these children couldn't even walk into school on the first day," says Kevin Teasley, president of the American Education Reform Foundation, an Indianapolis nonprofit group pushing such a plan for the district. "The system is broken, literally and physically, and if you're a parent it's time for your child to get a good education."
At issue is a measure on Capitol Hill that would make the district, in effect, a highly visible laboratory for vouchers, providing 2,000 low-income students with between $2,400 and $3,200 to apply to the school of their choice.
The program, included by congressional Republicans in the district's proposed budget, has support in the House, but President Clinton and many Senate Democrats oppose the measure. The issue could come up as early as tomorrow as part of the budget debate in the House.
Few school systems have started voucher programs, but the idea has been the source of frequent national debate. Supporters call vouchers the best way to make public schools competitive and the only way to satisfy students in violent, crowded and dilapidated inner-city public schools.
Critics allege that voucher programs blur the separation between church and state by placing an emphasis on parochial schools and encourage students to attend schools that may not be ethnically diverse.
In Washington, the voucher plan has pushed dozens of hot buttons. It is seen as an attack on home rule -- the idea that the district can govern itself without federal intervention. After a summer in which the Clinton administration and Congress stripped Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. of most of his powers, some district leaders see vouchers as another assault.
"The buzzards are flying now," says Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's nonvoting delegate in the House, referring to supporters of the voucher plan. "They're flying over the corpse of the district."
Most agree that the public schools are in crisis. Eighth-grade test scores are 79 percent below the national average for math and 29 percent below average for reading. Violence is a continuing problem, as are crowded classrooms and poor attendance. Also mentioned are the crumbling roofs, which caused the delayed school opening.
In November, a federally appointed control board -- a panel that manages district affairs -- found so much school mismanagement that it dismantled the city's 11-member school
board and installed retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius Becton Jr. as the new head of city schools.
Against this backdrop comes the voucher crusade. The coalition pressing the case here includes traditional voucher supporters -- Republicans and the religious right -- and adds an unlikely mix of Democratic lawmakers, inner-city black ministers and city politicians.
During the past week, Alveda King, the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has appeared in local television spots extolling the vouchers as "fulfilling the dreams" of her uncle. Teasley's group, the education reform foundation, organized dozens of district parents for a Capitol Hill demonstration.
Rep. Floyd H. Flake, a New York Democrat who broke from the Congressional Black Caucus to support vouchers, held a news conference to boost the district plan. Sterling Tucker, the former chairman of the district's City Council and one of Washington's first elected officials, collected more than 2,000 signatures from district residents to support the measure.
Last week, Norton called a press conference to fight back. She accused the opposition of duping local religious leaders into giving their support by calling the plan "scholarships" instead of vouchers. Some ministers said they signed petitions offered by "slick lobbyists" without knowing what they were supporting.
Critics -- such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers -- contend that the vouchers are not large enough to pay for a year of private school -- which can be more than $13,000. Other critics add that federal lawmakers would do better by giving more money to neighborhoods and classrooms.
But supporters, including several congressional Democrats such as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, argue that inner-city parents should have the same opportunity as people such as the Clintons, who sent their daughter, Chelsea, to Sidwell Friends school in northwest Washington.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, recently surveyed 90 percent of House members and 77 percent of the Senate body on their school preferences. The study found that 34 percent of House members and 50 percent of senators sent their children to private schools.
Vouchers have not been popular in the district in the past. Residents rejected vouchers by more than 80 percent in a citywide referendum in 1981.
Since then, only Milwaukee and Cleveland have started large-scale voucher systems, two experiments that have been tied up in legal battles.
Nevertheless, a study on the Cleveland program released last week by Harvard University found that the program helped to raise the scores of students and won favorable reviews by parents.
The voucher plan for Washington surfaced two years ago and was strongly opposed, as it is now, by Clinton and many Democrats. But House Republicans pressed the issue, and the battle helped hold up passage of the city's budget for six months.
Now, many public school teachers are hoping to see vouchers defeated again -- and only wish Congress would offer that same money as a grant to public schools.
Angela Thompson-Murphy, an elementary school teacher in Anacostia, one of the city's most crime-troubled neighborhoods, says her school can barely afford crayons and paper.
"If I had $2,000," she says, "the miracles I could perform in my classroom."
Pub Date: 9/22/97