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Statement by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton at
House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform hearing on
“School Choice in the District of Columbia: Opening Doors for Parents and Students,”

June 24, 2003




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Statement Press release

Opening Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
Full Government Reform Committee Hearing

D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003

June 24, 2003

We have before us a very slim vouchers only bill. It must disappoint D.C. officials considering what they desired and even the great expectations that have been stated or raised--in exchange for accepting vouchers, a takeover by the federal government of all or most of $255 million in special education funding, as D.C. Council Education Chair Kevin Chavous told me and his Council colleagues, or many millions in assistance for city operations as the Mayor indicated that he hoped for at a meeting. Putting aside these clearly unreachable heights, Mayor Williams deserves credit for responding to the concerns of a citywide coalition of parents and educators who want some new funds for public and charter schools.

Our compassionate. Cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, while of course wanting vouchers for his Catholic schools, yesterday said in a statement, "as Archbishop of Washington, I have always believed that a stand-alone voucher bill will not adequately care for the educational needs of all of our city's children. We will only support legislation that helps all families in our city, including those with children at public schools." The Cardinal, whose schools most of these children would attend, does not support H.R. 2558. Nor should anyone else.

I have been a strong supporter of our Catholic schools and am grateful that so many of them still remain open in this and other big cities. I have also strongly supported the Washington Scholarship Fund, which has put its money where its proverbial mouth is by raising private funds for scholarships to send our children to private schools. I have visited our children in the Catholic schools that have accepted Washington Scholarship students and spoken at their graduations. As many Catholic school parents who pay full tuition at our Catholic elementary and secondary schools will attest, I am fond of telling them that I and other D.C. residents owe them twice over. They have remained in D.C. when many have fled to the suburbs for better schools and they pay our considerable taxes plus tuition at private schools.

Cardinal McCarrick knows he and I disagree on vouchers, but he is a much respected and admired friend. Particularly at a time when both the District and the federal government have cut our public schools, he knows that it is wrong for the federal government to fund private schools without including publicly accountable schools that qualify under the language of the President's budget.

Yet the bill before us has shrunk incredibly even before it was introduced. It began at $30 million for vouchers only, cut in half now to $15 million for vouchers only, while those who will actually decide the amount in the Appropriation Committee have approved only $10 million. No one on an authorizing committee is in a position to guarantee funding, much less additional funds. The single focus of this bill on vouchers comes as no surprise from a Majority that has been bent on imposing vouchers on the District for years, always over the objections of the majority of District officials, whose resolutions have opposed vouchers even using additional federal funds.

The most serious problem with the proposed vouchers has yet to be discussed or to be taken seriously. Our traditional public and charter schools will be hit hard financially if the predicted 2,000 students exit in the fall. Our public schools will lose a combination of $12,557 per pupil in both DC and federal funds because every school system must be funded on a per pupil basis. That would be a blow DC public school funding cannot afford today.

The argument may be made that any price should be paid, even one at the expense of our public schools to allow a few children to go because DC children will perform better in private schools than in DC schools. I noted, however, that unlike many vouchers advocates, the Cardinal made no such claim in his statement. However vouchers advocates, including Secretary Paige's testimony today, often cite the performance of our children in the DC Public Schools as the reason they must go to private schools, as if this change would improve their performance. Even the pro-voucher study the Secretary cites at page 5 of his testimony that shows two years of gains for D.C. children using privately funded vouchers goes on to show that those gains disappeared in the third year. More seriously only 29 percent of the children remained in those schools at the end of the third year.

I do not cite these results to show that our private schools are a failure. Nor does the 10-year GAO study of public and privately funded voucher programs that found no evidence of test gains for children in private over public schools. The hyperbole needs to stop because it cheapens the serious story of why so many of these children do poorly and what needs to be done. Claims about the District, such as found in the Davis press release on this bill that "current spending per pupil excludes all but a handful of school districts in the country," are refuted by the numbers. I ask permission to insert this evidence in the record.

Such comparisons don't even touch the intractable causes of the problems many of our children face. In this city the average kid comes from a poor or modest single parent home, and huge numbers bring problems to school that ordinary services in either public or private schools have not overcome. The best hope for low income children are not vouchers. The transformation schools that surround these children and their parents with city services, including tutoring for the children and special services for the parents are the closest thing to a breakthrough we have achieved. All 15 transformation schools have improved their Stanford 9 scores. The extra services these children get are available in none of the other D.C. public or private schools. These are our poorest children often with the least motivated parents. The least any bill should do is to encourage and fund the improvements we see for the first time in these children.

Tonight I am hosting a town meeting for a hearing by the 10-member Commission on Black Men and Boys I established a few years ago. It is part of work I began 30 years ago when the Moynihan report had made it difficult for too many to talk about the deterioration of the African-American family. Although the black community has long since found its voice on the problems of family life, the downward spiral of children without fathers and often without the mothers they deserve has continued. Family dissolution has had devastating effects on our children and is at the root of virtually every problem of the black community. While doing much more to strengthen black family life our major recourse today lies with publicly accountable schools.

The District is seldom ahead of the rest of the country. Its transformation schools have achieved an important breakthrough in test scores and all-important parental involvement. Parents are literally clamoring to get their kids into our 42 charter schools. For creating a virtual alternative system to the D.C. public schools, H.R. 2558 should reward the city with desperately needed funds for its publicly accountable schools, not exclude them.

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For Immediate Release
June 23, 2003
Contact: Doxie A. McCoy
(202) 225-8050, (202)225-8143-cell


Washington, DC--Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said today that money for D.C. charter and transformation schools was becoming an incredibly shrinking promise with the slim voucher-only bill to be introduced by Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) today. At the highest end, Council Member Kevin Chavous initially said he would accept vouchers only if all or most of D.C. special education (S255,117,711) was federally funded. The original Davis bill had $30 million for vouchers only, now cut in half to $15 million for vouchers only; but there is only $10 million provided for vouchers in House appropriations. Norton said that even higher amounts still speculated for a combination of vouchers and public schools would leave little impact divided three ways.

"The last thing Congress should be doing this year when both the District and the federal governments have severely cut public schools is to send money elsewhere that could be used for our underfunded publicly accountable schools," Norton said. "The District has done exactly what Congress asked in establishing flourishing and extremely popular alternatives to the traditional public schools and exactly what the No Child Left Behind law requires in pulling low performing transformation schools outside the system for special treatment and increased resources, with excellent results. Instead of being rewarded for being ahead of the rest of the country, the District is getting a vouchers-only bill, that has serious unintended, negative consequences for D.C. public schools."

Norton said that the most serious effect of the bill has not been discussed. If the vouchers bill takes a predicted 2,000 students out of the D.C. public schools at one time, the city's public and charter schools will take a big blow next year. Public schools will lose both District and federal funds because schools are funded on a per pupil basis. She said that results on the use of vouchers in D.C. were already in. Children using privately funded vouchers here showed no improvement after three years. Norton said that she was even more concerned at the suitability of the private schools for D.C. children because only 29% of these children remained in private schools after three years.

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