D.C. School Choice Now a Reality

April 1, 2004

April 2004

D.C. School Choice Now a Reality

By Clint Bolick

The Institute for Justice has championed school choice in our nation’s capital for nine long years. In 1995, the Republican Congress passed a school choice bill that was vetoed by the president, prompting Wisconsin State Rep. Polly Williams, the architect of the Milwaukee program, to quip, “Bill and Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be the only people in public housing who get to send their kids to private schools.”

Noell Tucker, left, is among the many children who may one day benefit from D.C. School Choice. IJ worked with a large grassroots movement to champion D.C. school choice; Harrietta Fowler, member of D.C. Parents for School Choice, pictured right with a young friend, was among those local activists who played a key role in this success.

Early last year, we convened a meeting of school choice activists to discuss prospects for another try. We believed that with the rare combination of two Republican houses of Congress and a Republican president, the stars were in alignment—and might not be again for some time. We needed to seize the opportunity or we could lose it forever.

The movement was divided: some were gung-ho, others thought our chances were futile, still others believed we could go forward only with support from the D.C. political establishment. I predicted that hell would freeze over before the D.C. political establishment would support school choice.

We were right about the opportunity—and wrong about the D.C. political landscape. The appalling state of public schools provoked Mayor Anthony Williams, Council member Kevin Chavous and school board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz to support school choice. Soon they were joined by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a crucial convert who offset the defection of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). (Even West Wing’s President Bartlett endorsed the effort.)

Meanwhile, the movement to push school choice gained force behind hundreds of parents organized by D.C. Parents for School Choice Executive Director Virginia Walden-Ford. A plethora of organizations, including Fight for Children, the Cato Institute, the American Education Reform Council and Center for Educational Reform, lent additional support. Their efforts were supported by editorial backing from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and were championed in the political arena by Sens. Bill Frist (R-TN) and Judd Gregg (R-NH); Reps. Tom Davis (R-VA), John Boehner (R-OH) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ); and Education Secretary Rod Paige and President Bush.

But still it almost wasn’t enough. After furious and demagogic opposition by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), the bill passed in the House of Representatives by only one vote. Though it had majority support in the Senate, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) threatened a filibuster. Ultimately, Sen. Frist slipped the program into the omnibus budget bill, which passed in January.

Now a thousand or more economically disadvantaged children will have a chance for high-quality education in private schools. Given the national spotlight, the D.C. program could spark further reform across the nation.

In addition to providing legal counsel, IJ helped organize parents, generate favorable media coverage and keep the coalition together. Director of Communications Lisa Knepper became a crucial player in the effort, and were commended widely for their skill and ecumenical spirit.

Now with the difficult task of making the program operational in a very short time, IJ is providing critical logistical support, helping especially to get information to parents. And, of course, we are gearing up for the inevitable legal challenge.

Victory was sweetest for longtime activist Virginia Walden-Ford, who was one of the District’s first grassroots proponents for school choice. Over eight years, she and other D.C. parents endured constant disappointments. But they were always willing to lend support to efforts elsewhere around the nation that were bearing more fruit.

When their turn finally came, it was time to celebrate. IJ hosted a victory party in February that brought together school choice activists, parents and political leaders to mark the historic triumph.

But the respite was short. Much work remains to be done to activate what surely will become the nation’s most visible school choice program. IJ will be there to protect the victory. With luck, that victory will serve as the foundation for many more.

Clint Bolick is IJ’s co-founder and its strategic litigation counsel.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.