How to Fix DC's School Problem: Lose the Schools
Last week, the U.S. House of Representative passed the SOAR Reauthorization Act. (Next week they will, no doubt, be debating other clever backronyms for other equally banal bills.) SOAR, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results, is, like so much of what government does, benevolent on its surface. After all, who doesn't like giving money to disadvantaged children in one of America's most disadvantaged cities? It's almost as fun as handing out puppies!
But, also like so much of what government does, someone else ends up paying for it.
First, the whole concept of Congress legislating anything that happens outside the halls of federal government but inside the borders of the District of Columbia flies in the face of what the District was meant to be. The "taxation without representation" nonsense on the license plates and the ongoing quixotic call for D.C. statehood are just so many sour grapes.
D.C. was never meant to be a permanent residence for anyone. It was created to house the federal government at a time when the fledgling nation was still very much a delicate alliance of independent states, not the ironclad country that it has increasingly (although lately, decreasingly) become since the end of the Civil War. Part of the reason for this should be abundantly clear now that five out of the top ten richest counties are bedroom communities for federal government officials and lobbyists: government service was never meant to be a permanent gig or a road to wealth, so why would anyone want to stick around long enough to put down roots, especially in a humid, mosquito-infested cesspool like the one that D.C. was at its nascence?
But there's no turning back now. D.C. is one of the largest cities in America, and its future is undeniably tied to the whims of Congress and the president. (This fact was intriguingly examined in both The West Wing and House of Cards, where it was used as a political football by a president seeking to control Congress.)
But when the federal government runs roughshod over the 10th Amendment as it has for so long now, it's at least somewhat checked by the desires of political leaders in state capitals who either have a genuine interest in the future prosperity and freedom of their states or simply want credit for whatever program Congress is seeking to shove down the people's throats. I'm sure D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser has similar desires, but, being only one person with her entire budget at the mercy of Congress, she doesn't have quite the power of a governor and his legislature (except when she has the president on her side, as displayed in the aforementioned TV shows). So, then, D.C. becomes a hyperbole of every bad (and sometimes good) idea that the federal government has – all that power laser-focused on a mere 68 square miles.
So what's the problem with SOAR? Well, nothing, really – just as there's nothing wrong with giving kids puppies. The problem is in who pays for the puppies, and for the scholarships.
When you're taxing 300 million people and using it to educate a mere 1,244 children, that's not bad at all. But it's also the federal government doing what it does worst: picking winners and losers. Don't get me wrong: I have a lot more faith in the future of the boys and girls attending D.C. private and charter schools on an Opportunity Scholarship than I do in whatever cockamamie green energy scheme made it to the president's desk this week, but it's still a dangerous precedent that's been set – and all the more dangerous because, ironically, precedents for federal fiscal support of something as controversial as school vouchers are rather tenuous.
Now, if I were a congressman, I probably would have voted for SOAR, too, just to keep the money coming, and I applaud President Obama for his support of it as well (words I don't often write), but at some point, SOAR will become a political football, and the unfortunate children of D.C. will be held hostage. Furthermore, regardless of the future, there are thousands of children in D.C. schools who, while perhaps not as "disadvantaged" as the ones taking advantage of Opportunity Scholarships, are still at a disadvantage. (And many of them could be worse off, since D.C. Opportunity Scholarships are awarded through a lottery.) There is a better way – as Reagan may have said, not necessarily an easier way, but a better way.
The ultimate solution to this problem lies in D.C. ceasing to be a quasi-state, with its public infrastructure tied to the whims of the federal government. For education, this means that residents need to start sending their children to schools outside D.C. This is where permanent residents of the area should be living anyway. In turn, schools in Maryland and Virginia (and the other 48 states, for that matter), should be allowed to succeed or fail on their own, with limited ties to federal or state mandates.
While people often lament the state of public education in this country (and rightly so), I've never heard anyone feel sorry for the children going to private schools. Wouldn't the answer, then, be to send all of our children to private schools? And before you protest, trust me when I say that this solution doesn't necessitate only the wealthy getting an education; after all, many of the children using D.C. Opportunity Scholarships may attend private schools – even Sidwell Friends, home to First Daughters Sasha and Malia Obama!
Mark Griswold lives in "the other Washington," which is currently waging its own battle over charter schools. More of his thoughts can be read at www.ThePoliticalBistro.com.