When I began my stint with the D.C. public schools, I had strong ideas about what education reform should look like and what it shouldn’t look like. I believed wholeheartedly that we had to have a very strong focus on teacher quality. I was also a believer in charter schools. I had seen their value when I served for a couple of years on the board of the St. HOPE Public Schools. I guess that was my first break with Democratic dogma. I knew that charter schools were anathema to teachers’ unions. I also knew the best ones could serve children extraordinarily well.
But I drew a very deep line in the sand when it came to vouchers. As a lifelong Democrat I was adamantly against vouchers. Vouchers provide public funds to parents who need help in paying tuition for private or parochial schools. Proponents, mostly Republicans, see vouchers as leveling the field and broadening choice for families. Detractors, usually Democrats, decry the use of public funds to pay for private education. I had bought into the arguments that Democrats and others use in opposition to vouchers: vouchers are a way of taking money away from public school systems and putting them into private schools; vouchers help only a handful of the kids; and vouchers take children and resources away from the schools and districts that need those resources the most.
For all of those reasons, my view on vouchers was set. But soon after I arrived in Washington, D.C., I was in a pickle. The District of Columbia had Opportunity Scholarships, a federally funded voucher program that helped poor families attend private schools. The program was up for reauthorization, and there was a heated debate going on in the city.
“You’re the most high-profile education official in the city,” a Washington Post reporter asked. “Do you think the Opportunity Scholarship program should be re-upped?”
My inclination was to say no. As a good Democrat, I should have responded, “I don’t support vouchers, because they are not a systemic solution to the problems we face.” No one would have been surprised or upset with that answer.
However, I wanted to have my facts straight. So I decided to meet with families across the city and spend some time better understanding the Opportunity Scholarships initiative. It’s amazing what one can learn from talking to parents.