This commentary originally appeared in The Hill on April 14, 2017.
If President Trump is correct that school choice is the civil rights issue of our time, then there’s no better place than Washington, D.C., to commence the fight. Bloated bureaucracies and potent teachers unions remain intractable obstacles to reform, leaving thousands of schoolchildren mired in mediocrity. Were the president to succeed in bringing education freedom and innovation to D.C. schools, he’d have a model of success that could be replicated across America.
The president and his reformer allies in Congress should take a page from history. Using “Washington City” as the poster child of necessary reform can mobilize similar efforts elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous example is from the 1840s, when antislavery activists earned significant media coverage—and support for their cause nationally—by emphasizing how deplorable it was for slaves to be bought and sold in close proximity to the White House and the Capitol. Motivated by the reality that our urban school systems effectively shackle the futures of our children, President Trump could propel parental choice movements nationwide by making education choice in D.C. schools a priority.
The need is acute: the current state of Washington’s schools is deplorable. Rivaling only Detroit as the nation’s worst school system, Washington, D.C., has the nation’s lowest SAT scores and highest dropout rate. Barely more than half of the system’s students graduate. Considering that it is one of the largest school systems in the nation—50,000 young souls must endure it—the social impact is significant. Failing to graduate from high school dramatically reduces a student’s economic prospects, which in turn cascades into a host of social and even legal problems. Attacking the injustice of the D.C. school system would be the 21st-century equivalent of previous civil rights efforts.
This educational injustice is not the result of spending too little money. At an annual per pupil expenditure of $30,000, Washington schools cost the equivalent of the finest private schools in America. Moreover, few school districts in the world spend more than Washington does—and all that do have far superior results.
The problem is the educational bureaucracy itself. Even innovators like former superintendent Michelle Rhee get chewed up by the system. It’s the one thing bureaucracies do well: perpetuate themselves through organizational metastasis, whereby every good idea—or every change agent with one—is eliminated. While frustrating in other agencies of government, when that happens in schools, it’s tragic.
The solution is more freedom, something those oppressed by the institutionalized mediocrity of the system don’t have enough of.
Thankfully for reformers, a model of education freedom already exists in Washington—the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Created in 2004, the program is offers tuition vouchers to private schools. By every measure, educational outcomes for participants have been light-years ahead of their public school peers’. Most telling, nearly 100 percent of program participants graduate, compared to just over half of D.C. public school students. Nearly 9 in 10 go to college. And not surprisingly, nearly 9 in 10 parents of participants say their children’s prospects were improved by their participation.
Given these results, a reasonable observer would assume that elected leaders of both parties would be clamoring for its expansion. Not so in modern America, where President Obama led the charge against the program. The political power of entrenched unions apparently outweighs the needs of our students.
How ironic—and potent—it would be that the consummate privileged American, Donald Trump, would lead the charge to address the injustice of our age. Persuading Congress to use its authority over the federal district under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution would be a political investment with a tremendous upside.
The president ought to aim for nothing less than a full expansion—i.e. to every single child in Washington—of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. So doing would have three discernible benefits for the nation as a whole.
First, making all D.C. schoolchildren eligible would genuinely address the problem of low expectations and even lower efficiency of the modern educracy. Scores of research studies show that parental choice programs, by empowering parents with tools to identify the best school for their children, lead to better outcomes. Congress has failed in its duty to provide such opportunity for the children in our capital city—and we are all right to be embarrassed by the tragedy.
Second, the president weighing in would be a shot in the arm for education choice nationwide, likely boosting efforts in most states. With such programs already in place in more than 30 states, presidential priority could persuade legislatures to expand existing programs and commence new ones. The introduction of competition would spur public school systems to innovate.
Finally, this action would be a sorely needed lesson in federalism. Education choice programs are the domains of states, save for Congress’ rightful authority over the schools in Washington, Indian reservations, and military bases. Using its authority in such a meaningful—and measured—way would allow each legislature to determine the best form of parental choice for its citizens.
The rhetoric on both sides about education is all moot, however, if we continue to throw more money at the same systems, which evidence little impulse to innovate. Our new president has shown a willingness to end business as usual. If he wants a lever for change that will spur similar reforms around the country, he need look no farther than the children of our capital city.