National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

McCarrick, D.C. mayor talk sense about schools

Supporters of the idea too often view education vouchers as a panacea for what ails inner-city schools. Just let the magic of the marketplace do its work, give the poor similar educational options to their wealthier counterparts, and -- presto! -- we’ll be rolling out high achievers like GM does cars.

Voucher opponents, meanwhile, argue that such programs will drain public schools, the primary institutional educators of our children, of needed dollars even as the sacred wall separating church and state is breached.

Among the former are many House Republicans, who want to use the District of Columbia as a laboratory to implement their pro-voucher ideal.

Among the latter are the nation’s public school teachers unions and church-state activists (and the politicians, largely Democrats, who rely on such groups to both fund and energize their campaigns). Whatever the educational merits of their arguments, these folks -- and not without reason -- see vouchers as a threat to their pocketbooks and ideology.

Enter District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams and Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Washington’s public schools are, generally speaking, a disaster: abysmal test scores, among the highest per-pupil costs in the world, large numbers of unqualified teachers, and dilapidated buildings. Plus, many of the schools are not safe; yet under the requirements of compulsory education, parents are required to send their children daily into harm’s way. They have no choice.

Williams and McCarrick have been working together to find a way out of the ideological morass that is the voucher debate. The mayor recently reversed his long-standing opposition to a $15 million Bush administration voucher proposal for D.C. schools, part of a three-pronged plan that would pump additional millions into public and charter schools to improve the system. It’s a sensible approach -- one that gives additional options to low-income families while acknowledging that the city’s public schools will continue to educate the overwhelming majority of D.C. children. McCarrick, leader of the entity that would provide the largest alternative to the city’s public schools, also endorsed the plan.

But then the House Republicans tried a bait and switch. They endorsed the voucher funds, as they have done in years past, while holding back on the additional money for public education and charter schools.

McCarrick could have easily, and quietly, endorsed this approach. After all, many of the 2,000 students who would benefit from the vouchers will attend Catholic schools and, in fact, be better off for it.

Instead, he spoke out against it. “The archdiocese of Washington is grateful that the United States Congress is making education in our nation’s capital a priority, but 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,” said McCarrick.

And then the kicker: “We will only support legislation that helps all families in our city, including those with children at public schools.”

He continued: “Children deserve the best education they can get -- whether it is at a Catholic or other non-public school, a charter school or public school -- and parents deserve the support to make this happen.”

House Republicans now say that the additional funding for the city’s public schools will be included in a separate appropriation bill. Critics are skeptical, as well they should be.

There’s a lot of hot air generated over vouchers in Washington. But with the exception of D.C. public schools, unique because of the city’s ties to the federal government, it’s not an issue that Congress and the president have a whole lot of say over. The action is at the state and local level.

Through their support for comprehensive education funding without regard to venue -- public, private and parochial, charter school -- McCarrick and Williams have provided an example for church and political leaders across the country. It is a model that puts education first, and that’s what this debate should be all about.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

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