The Economist reports on efforts to introduce vouchers to the District of Columbia's awful school system:
The District of Columbia may contain the capital of the most powerful country in the history of the world. But the local public schools smack more of Ruritania than Imperial Rome.
Though they boast the third-highest level of per-pupil spending in the country, 70% of pupils in the District score at or below the basic level on standardised reading tests (ie, they can barely read) and 71% score at or below basic in maths. In one infamous high school, Anacostia, 92% of children score below basic in maths. Illiteracy is so rife that, when the mayor was organising a "write-in" campaign in 2002, his supporters were forced to hand out pre-printed stamps. Anybody rich enough either moves to the suburbs or pays through the nose for private schools.
Now at last there is a flicker of hope for the 67,500 children trapped in DC's public schools. On May 1st, Mayor Anthony Williams publicly embraced school vouchers during an appearance with the education secretary, Rod Paige. He now thinks that vouchers can provide opportunities for children caught in failing schools while also galvanising the system as a whole...
Introducing vouchers into DC will not only bring hope to thousands of children who are trapped in a rotten system. It will force the Democratic Party to choose between its most loyal constituency -- blacks -- and some of its biggest paymasters, the teachers' unions. So far, the party has invariably sided with the unions. But the introduction of vouchers in the nation's capital may force it to pay a bit more attention to the majority of blacks who support school choice.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's non-voting Congressional representative, opposes vouchers
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) celebrated National Charter School Week today at a news conference at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, where the new Coalition for Accountable Public Schools announced its opposition to congressional and Bush Administration attempts to impose vouchers on the District of Columbia. Norton said that the District has the most extensive set of alternatives to traditional public schools in the country, with its 40 charter schools and 15 transformation schools. She said that both desperately need any and all available federal money to keep up with parents who are seeking admission for their children. "We will not accept discrimination that imposes vouchers on us while every other jurisdiction in the country may choose whether federal grant money goes to public or private schools," the Congresswoman said.
In other words, the problem, according to the Congresswoman, is money. DC schools need more of it. Or do they? How much money do DC schools spend today? The Washington Times knows
A [Census Bureau] report issued Tuesday revealed that current per-pupil spending for public schools is virtually as high in the District as it is in any of the 50 states. Specifically, for the school year ending in June 2001, the District spent $10,852 per student, a mere $70 per student behind New York State, the national leader. The District's per-pupil current expenditure exceeded the national average of $7,284 by more than $3,500, or 49 percent.
Regarding current spending and capital outlays (construction, equipment, etc.), the District's per-pupil figure was $15,122, a level that was far higher than a comparable figure for any state. Indeed, the highest level of total revenues of any state -- $12,454 for New Jersey -- was nearly $2,700 per pupil below the District's. Across the nation, moreover, total revenues available for current spending and capital outlays averaged $8,521 per pupil, a level the District's figure of $15,122 exceeded by more than $6,600 per student, or by an astounding 77 percent...
These figures put the lie to the assertions... that schools are significantly underfunded. The problem, quite obviously, isn't that D.C. taxpayers and the federal government are shortchanging the schools. The problem is that the schools have been shortchanging the students for years.
In the 2000-2001 school year, DC's student/teacher ratio
was 13.6 in primary schools, 13.5 in middle schools, and 14.1 in high schools. In other words, if you were to walk into a typical DC high school classroom, with 14.1 students, that classroom would represent $153,013 in spending, not including capital outlays, which would push the figure to $213,220.
In 2001, the average public school teacher salary in DC was $48,651. In other words, of the $153,013 spent in that typical classroom, only 31.8 percent went to pay the teacher's salary. Where did the rest go? It didn't go to build or maintain schools -- capital spending represents another $60,207 per classroom.
It has been said that one definition of insanity is to repeat the same actions while expecting different results. The US has relentlessly increased school spending over the last 30 years. What has it done for us? What has it done for a pathetic school system like DC's? Why do people believe that yet more spending will solve the problem?
We need to conduct grand experiments to see which education system changes will and won't work. If we don't know the answer to this question, how can we properly make reforms for the future?