Taking D.C. to School

Bamboozling the black parents of D.C.

During the George W. Bush years, it was easy to think that American politics could not possibly get nastier or more polarized than it already was.  With Mr. Obama's election, that view has turned out to be much too optimistic; opinion polls demonstrate that, far from bringing us together, our new president instead has polarized the nation more quickly than any other President in forty years, including such exemplars of partisan incompetence and general failure as Presidents Nixon and Carter.

It's one thing to disagree at the margins.  It's quite another when both sides believe their opponents are not just wrong, but in fact evil.  It gets pretty bad when each side thinks the other is setting forth with malice aforethought to destroy the country we live in.

Just because everyone is throwing around accusations of evil, greed, hypocrisy, theft, tyranny, and socialism in all directions, however, doesn't mean all the accusations are false; as the saying goes, even the paranoid have enemies.

Scragged recently waded into just such a situation with our recent article about the end of the D.C. school voucher program.  It wouldn't be true to say the reaction surprised us, exactly; accusations of racism tend to elicit a strong response, and when you accuse the most powerful black man in history of promoting white supremacy, well, one doesn't anticipate a shower of rose petals.

The responses (both public and private) we received were nevertheless eyebrow-raising in two ways: first, in their generally more or less polite tone, and second, in their almost total misunderstanding of the underlying facts which led us to our conclusions.

That is not the readers' fault.  It is the job of the writer, not the reader, to lay out the facts clearly and plainly; obviously we failed.  Herewith, we try again.

The Proof of the Pudding

There are many successful people who are the butt of jokes and ridicule.  Donald Trump gets made fun of for wearing a deceased rodent on his head.  Richard Simmons' nasal and less-than-manly voice is ripe fodder for parody.  Britney Spears has fueled entire careers for late-night comics.

Do any of these people mind?  Not really, and we have a saying explaining why: they are "laughing all the way to the bank."

What they do, for whatever reason, is something that makes them a whole lot of money; and in a capitalist society, it's better to be a clown with a massive bank account than a dignified pauper.  Success of an enterprise or line of work (assuming it's legal) is judged purely by the financial results.

It is possible to judge schools similarly - not financially which would take a few years, but through the results of standard tests the students take each year.  You can argue over the merits of the SAT, the CAT, the ACT, and all the rest, but they do demonstrate something related to learning.

If the scores of students taking the same test are going up compared to their scores in previous years, or compared to other students the same age, those schools are doing a better job of educating.  Simple fact.

The point of the Washington, D.C. voucher program was to perform just this experiment with inner-city ghetto kids.  Everybody knows inner-city schools are hellholes churning out "graduates" fit mostly for prison or welfare.  Everybody knows that expensive private schools, in contrast, produce our nation's successful elites.

Why is this?  Do private schools do that much better a job of teaching?  Or are the kids who go to those elite schools just naturally smarter?

With the vouchers, America was given a way to answer that question.  The voucher program took children already failing in D.C. public schools and placed them in private schools of various sorts.  After a few years, we can now compare the children who got vouchers to their younger selves before they entered private education, and also to their peers who stayed behind in the public schools.

It is precisely these data that Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan knowingly suppressed during the debate, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.  What did the squelched study show?  The Journal tells us:

Children attending private schools with the aid of the scholarships are reading nearly a half-grade ahead of their peers who did not receive vouchers. Voucher recipients are doing no better in math but they're doing no worse. Which means that no voucher participant is in worse academic shape than before, and many students are much better off. [emphasis added]

Did the voucher program turn every recipient into a Rhodes Scholar?  No.  But a nation of nothing but Rhodes Scholars is impossible and utopian (or maybe dystopian; remember Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar.)

All that matters is that the kids learn and improve; these kids did.  The vouchers worked, at least for some.

What of the others - that is, the kids on vouchers who did not improve?  The study found even those aren't worse off.  Since they aren't any better either, doesn't it prove that expensive vouchers are a waste of money?

No.  Quite the opposite.

Competition and the Big Markdown

One of the big consumer trends of the last few decades, decried by environmentalists and anti-development groups alike, is the rise of the big-box bulk-purchase retail warehouse store.  Budget-conscious moms and small businesspeople flock to Sam's Club, BJs, Costco, and the rest.

Why?  Because at those stores, they can get the same stuff they buy at the grocery store, for less money.  It might not be quite as convenient; they may have to drive a little farther.  But the cost of extra gas is clearly outweighed by savings at the register.

What's wrong with that?  Nothing whatsoever - in fact, it's capitalism in action, as competition leads to innovation which leads to lower prices to you.

If there's one thing that characterizes public education, it's a total lack of competition.  Almost everywhere, your kids are told where they will be going to school based on where your house happens to be.  If you don't like it, you can't simply send them down the street the other way; you have to move your whole household at great trouble and expense.

If you really don't like the local public school, there is always the option of private education, but it's an expensive one.  Traditional public schools are free to the consumer; private schools are at best several thousand dollars per year, and go steeply up from there.  It's a devastating indictment of American public schools that, for millions of families, "free" still isn't an acceptable option for their children's education.

By offering vouchers to poor students, the DC program simply put the private schools on a level playing field with the public schools, and the poor recipients on a level paying field with the nearly half of Congress who sent their own kids to private school.  Even among those politicians who do send their children to public school, they do as Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained in an interview with Science magazine:

Interviewer: As the second education secretary with school-aged kids, where does your daughter go to school, and how important was the school district in your decision about where to live?

A.D.: She goes to Arlington [Virginia] public schools. That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn't want to try to save the country's children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children's education.  [emphasis added]

Darn right he didn't - it was out of the question for his daughter to be sentenced to a D.C. public school.  Why, then should the poor kids have to suffer so?

Set aside for the moment the issue of cost to the parent.  The D.C. voucher program was a spectacular bargain for the taxpayer - and not merely on the somewhat hypothetical calculation of prison costs for D.C. public school graduates vs. taxes paid by private school alumni.  The math is as simple as it is shocking:

The vouchers cost $7,500 per student, for which price they were placed in an effective private school.

According to the Washington Post, the admitted cost of D.C. public schools is $8,322 per child - significantly more - but when all costs including capital (building) costs and other grants are accounted for, the total bill is an eye-watering $24,600 for each student.  Yikes!

Think about it this way: The total DC annual expenditure on public schools is about $1.2 billion.  There are just shy of 50,000 students in the system.  If they all got vouchers of $7,500 each and went elsewhere - and remember, the 1,700 voucher recipients mostly did better, none were worse, and all were happier - the District would be left holding a difference of $825 million for doing nothing at all.

We don't expect Sam's Club to be better quality than Giant, though it may be; it's quite enough that it is just as good and a lot cheaper.  On this measure alone, the vouchers were a staggering success.

Aiming High from Low Places

Better educational scores, particularly for impoverished minority children, should be something all Americans can join together and support.  Cheaper and more efficient provision of education, one would think, would be another ripe area for common cause.

As appealing as these benefits of the D.C. voucher program are, however, there is one more of even greater worth, as explained by Pamela Battle, mother of one of its beneficiaries.

Consider the story of Carlos Battle, a black 11th-grader at Georgetown Day. The Washington Times talked to him and his mother yesterday. Carlos lives with his mother, Pamela, and brother, Calvin, in an apartment off Malcolm X Boulevard. His mother didn't graduate from high school and is out of work. They don't own a car. Without the voucher program, she says, "We clearly couldn't afford Georgetown Day." She has a talent for understatement. Without vouchers, she worries that Carlos, who now hopes to be a lawyer someday, would end up "becoming a statistic" and "be on the street selling drugs." [emphasis added]

How can you put a price on removing a child from a path of crime and setting him instead on the road to success and self-worth?  That is precisely what this voucher program accomplished for 1,700 children who, by all of history and economics, would almost certainly never amount to anything.  The only way they would be featured on the evening news would be as a chalk outline on the street or holding a police ID number under their chin.

As a direct result of the excellent education made possible by the vouchers, the lives of the recipients have been utterly changed in the most fundamental way imaginable.  These children now have a hope - no, not just a hope, but a practical and viable path - for a life of excellence and success the equal of any suburban middle-class family.

You seek for social justice?  What could be more socially just than that?

And what greater poetic justice could there be than for Carlos Battle, ten years from now, to appear in court demanding the extension of this voucher program to all of D.C.'s struggling youth!

Would our nation's leaders rather he remain a ward of the state, whether behind bars or receiving a welfare check?  By their actions, they are telling us: apparently so.  What other excuse could there be?

What Are They Thinking?

The arguments in favor of the continued voucher program are so crystal clear, so compelling in every way, that it is honestly difficult to divine any rational reason to oppose them.

Concerned about educating our kids?  The vouchers helped many, and hurt none.

Concerned about helping the poor?  We all know education is key to success in life, and the private schools delivered that.

Worried about busting the education department's budget?  Vouchers for all would save money, not cost it.

Of course, the reason Democrats are so opposed to any form of school choice is patently obvious: Free public schooling without choice keeps the majority of American children as a captive audience to unaccountable teachers unions.  Unions, in turn, are by far the largest source of funds for Democrats and have been for many years.

So by passing truckloads of tax dollars to public schools, thence (via enforced dues payments) to union bosses, and thence to legendarily lopsided political donations, Democratic politicians shovel your money into their own pockets - children's lives and futures be damned.

Did Barack Obama intentionally set out to specifically deprive black children of an education?  Of course not.  After all, his own children are more or less black, and he's making sure they get a very fine education indeed.

Democrats in Congress, though, very definitely set out to deprive the children of D.C. public schools of any chance at a decent education; by squelching the study showing how successful the program was, Education Secretary Duncan used fraud and cover-up to further that goal - and, it so happens, 99% of those students just happen to be black.

If Republicans did something that just so happened to harm only black people, would they be accused of racism?  A quick search for discussions of why felons are banned from voting produces thousands of examples of supposedly credible commentators on the left saying exactly that.

Why isn't it fair game to throw the same accusation at Democrats when they do the exact same thing?  Either it's the right call in both cases - or the wrong call for both, but you cannot have it both ways.

Does this make Democrat voters racist?  Well, considering that Mr. Obama won 92% of the D.C. vote, it's hardly reasonable to think DC parents are racist against themselves.

No, they truly believed in "Hope and Change", and that's very sad.  For the voucher recipients, their siblings, and the applicants on the waiting list, they certainly did get a Change: change, that is, in the form of the theft of Hope they thought they already had.  They were lied to, and robbed.

This is why the almost entirely black protest in favor of the vouchers is so encouraging.  When a group of people reliably votes overwhelmingly for one side, that doesn't give them power, it gets them ignored and taken for granted.

The parents of D.C. may not all realize it yet, but some of their neighbors do: the Democratic leadership for whom they voted, and the black president in whom they placed all their trust, hope, and dreams, have betrayed them in a most cruel and merciless fashion.

We hear every day how Republicans are all racists.  We never see any proof of this racism - but there is abundant proof that the other side of the aisle cares nothing for anyone other than themselves, and certainly not for minorities.

It's not a Republican Senator who was once elected Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan; no, that would be Senator Robert Byrd (D, WV).  It's not a Republican Congressman who fraudulently occupied three rent-controlled apartments in New York, taking advantage of laws meant to help the poor; no, that would be Rep. Charlie Rangel (D, NY).  It wasn't a Democrat who fought a war to free the slaves (Lincoln), sent federal troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School (Eisenhower), or so greatly raised anti-AIDS health care assistance in Africa that children there are commonly named after him (why, yes, that Devil Incarnate, none other than George W. Bush).

Yet you won't see any of these facts presented on the news.

For a long time, the rightful demands of Southern blacks for their civil birthrights weren't presented on the news in a favorable light either - yet Dr. King pressed for them anyway, then demanded them, then fought for them, until all of a sudden the opinions on the news changed.

It's time for the black community to take D.C. to school - literally for the children of that city, and in the most pejorative euphemistic sense of the phrase for those politicians who, while promising stars and rainbows in their speeches, take substantive, meaningful actions to deliver just the opposite.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Brilliant article.

My father has often said that 'God helps those who help themselves.' Whether it be divine or mundane no one succeeds without hard work and dedication. It is very good to see the desire to succeed with a hand up, not a hand out, coming from the middle of the inner city black community.

I would say, however, that racism (although well placed for the reasons stated in your article) doesn't quite seem right. As implied in my comment on the previous article, I do not see racism but rather classism. The democratic elite need the poor to be poor, need the poor to be uneducated, need the poor to be unable to manage their lives independently of help.

The poor have no need of the democrats, but it is easy to control the uneducated masses.
May 14, 2009 8:26 AM

The U.S. government found $730 billion for war. What could we do with that for peace? A government exists to take care of the poeple it governs. Are we taking care of our veterns?

May 11, 2011 11:46 AM
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