Last week, appearing at a Washington, D.C., charter school, President Bush touted a new $15 million program that would provide private-school tuition grants to children who live in the District of Columbia. The program is part of a larger $75 million national “choice incentive fund” that is open to several U.S. cities and is sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA). The proposal supported by Rep. Davis and President Bush, the DC Parental Choice Initiative Act of 2003, would provide up to $7,500 to lower-income Washington, D.C., children who are currently enrolled in targeted public schools.
In his speech at the KIPP DC: Key Academy, a very successful charter school that serves fifth- through eighth-graders, President Bush referred to “some great schools” and “some lousy schools” that serve students in the District. He then took the District to task for its lowest-in-the-nation reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that were released last month. He stressed the need for his choice incentive fund as an appropriate response to failing schools. “We’ve got to have the philosophical notion that we cannot have a two-tiered education system in America — one tier for those who can afford a certain type of school, and one tier for those who can’t. And so this plan is an attempt to say, the two-tiered deal is over with, we’re starting to a new tier,” the President said.
Critics of the choice incentive fund claim it is nothing more than a thinly veiled voucher program that will drain money from public schools. Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, questioned whether the program could improve student achievement. “The research shows that the children in voucher schools don’t do any better than the children who are not receiving vouchers. If vouchers were the true savior, then the research would bear that out,” he said. One former opponent of the program who has changed his tune is Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D), who appeared with President Bush at the event. Williams says his support is contingent upon increased federal funding for Washington, D.C., public schools.
In his speech, President Bush stressed that any privately funded school that accepted a student who received funding through his proposal would have to be accountable for that student’s academic progress. “The same accountability system applies to the recipient school as it does to the public schools in Washington. We want there to be accountability throughout the system…And so if a private scholarship ends up in a Catholic school, people will be held to account. After all, it’s taxpayers’ money. We want to know. We want to know whether it-in a public school or a private school, whether or not the children are learning.”