Education, Civil Rights Leaders Join Norton

Coalition: McCain Amendment Tramples on Home Rule

WASHINGTON – A coalition of education and civil rights leaders joined the District of Columbia’s elected representative to Congress this morning to urge senators not to impose on the District of Columbia’s schools an idea that its duly elected leaders don’t support—calling on the U.S. Senate to reject the McCain amendment. The amendment, which is expected to come to a vote this week, would use federal tax dollars to fund a private-school voucher program for the District.

Joining District of Columbia U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton at the news conference Tuesday were leaders of People For the American Way (PFAW), the PTA, and the NAACP. Ralph G. Neas, president of PFAW, said pro-voucher forces are choosing politics over democracy and trampling on the District’s "home rule" charter.

"The people of the District of Columbia don’t want vouchers. D.C. voters have rejected a tuition tax credit proposal by more than an 8-to-1 margin, making it clear that they want public funds to flow to public schools," said Neas. "Voucher supporters know they are losing the public debate, and the McCain amendment is a cynical effort to try to impose an idea on D.C. that its citizens and elected leaders do not support. Senators should listen to the mayor of this city and its elected representative in Congress. Both of them support quality school reform, but they oppose vouchers."

Neas also accused voucher supporters of hiding behind language that misleads parents and the public.

"School ‘choice’ is the ultimate in false advertising. It’s the private schools that do the choosing, not parents. The McCain Amendment would provide vouchers of only $2,000—an amount that is well below the cost of most private schools in Washington," said Neas.

In addition to the issue of cost, many private schools would be "off limits" to voucher students due to long waiting lists or limited capacity.

Neas expressed concern about the McCain amendment’s failure to fully protect civil rights. Under the McCain amendment, he said, private schools that participate in the voucher program could effectively discriminate against students on a variety of factors: admission test scores, religion, sex, English proficiency, or academic and disciplinary records. (The Gregg Amendment—which proposes to create voucher programs in up to 10 cities and three states—does a similarly bad job of protecting civil rights.) This is a serious concern since just last year Wisconsin officials found "probable cause" that some Milwaukee voucher schools were using admission fees, religion and other factors to violate the state law on open admissions.

Neas warned that redirecting federal tax dollars to private schools would undermine church-state separation, as well as public school reform efforts. Neas noted that many urban school systems are starting to show signs of progress, as are D.C. Public Schools. Specifically, he cited:

Students in the District’s public schools recently improved their test scores in reading and math, and public school scores on these Stanford 9 tests outpaced the scores of charter school students.
The summer-school program STARS is reaching an average of 20,000 students, providing assistance to students who need it and even offering an SAT prep course.
The District is placing a greater focus on teacher training in its special education programs in order to identify challenges and "best practices" for helping students achieve.
"Teachers and administrators are making progress," Neas said. "To divert funds from public education is a major error that disrupts this momentum. The McCain amendment won’t train a single teacher, build or repair another school, or reduce the number of kids in a single classroom. All the McCain amendment will do is gamble with our children’s future by pouring even more money into a risky and unproven approach."

Neas said that none of the three publicly-funded voucher plans requires its schools to administer standardized tests and report scores—so the public has almost no data showing how well voucher schools are doing.

"Voucher supporters have made a lot of promises and raised a lot of hope," he said. "But so far there appears to be a very big gap between the hope and the hype."

Last November, voters in Michigan and California defeated statewide voucher initiatives. Every single state that has placed voucher initiatives on the ballot has seen voters reject these proposals. Years ago, a D.C. ballot initiative to create tuition tax credits was overwhelmingly defeated by District voters — 89 percent voted against the proposal.

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