Separate but Equal in Washington, D.C.

"I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny ... and I say ... segregation today ... segregation tomorrow ... segregation forever!" Alabama Gov. George Wallace at his 1962 inauguration.

"Norton Serves Notice to Congress: Impose No Vouchers on D.C." — Washington, D.C., Delegate to Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton, in a July 10, 2002, press release.

Perhaps it's unfair to compare Delegate Norton to former Alabama Gov. (and notorious racist) George Wallace. But there are a number of similarities.

Wallace barred low-income black kids from attending school with white kids in Alabama's better-staffed, better-managed white public schools. Norton is preventing low-income kids (97 percent of whom aren't white) from attending D.C.'s better-staffed, better-funded, largely white private and parochial schools.

Wallace served a constituency of slack-jawed, backward-thinking ignoramuses. Norton serves the teachers' unions.

And both looked a hopelessly failed and flawed system square in the kisser, and hadn't the courage to allow for change.

Norton's press release and corresponding remarks on the floor of the House were made in response to H.R. 5033, a measure introduced by Majority Leader Dick Armey that would fund up to 8,300 education vouchers for up to $5,000 each for the poorest kids in the nation's worst public school system — Washington, D.C. Armey's proposal would take no money from the current D.C. schools system — all $45 million would come from a separate federal fund.

Regardless of what you think about federally funded vouchers (personally, I favor a tax credit system that would circumvent the need for federal meddling), Rep. Armey's proposal provides a nifty tool for exposing the vapid logic of those who advocate keeping poor kids as far as possible from the doors of private schools.

Norton's first criticism of the Armey plan, for example, is that it "imposes" vouchers on a D.C. constituency that "voted overwhelmingly against" them. "Eighty-nine percent against, 11 percent for," Norton dutifully iterated on the House floor. She neglected to mention that the vote she repeatedly references took place ... in 1981. Since then, the Berlin Wall fell, three presidents were inaugurated and a certain columnist went through puberty. A lot has changed.

More recently (and pertinent to the issue) than Norton's 1981 referendum, a 1998 Washington Post poll found that 56 percent of D.C. residents favored a voucher system. Support was even higher among African Americans at 60 percent, and even higher among African Americans making under $50,000 at 65 percent. It seems the more likely the parents are to be stuck in D.C.'s public school system, the more likely they are to want out. That point is further bolstered by the fact that Hillary and Bill Clinton, Al and Tipper Gore, and Jesse Jackson — voucher opponents all — each took advantage, respectively, of posh private schools for their own kids, all the while advocating good-enough city schools for children not so privileged.

In 1997, the non-profit Washington Scholarship Fund provided for 1,000 tuition vouchers for D.C.'s public school kids. Over 7,500 of them (one of every six students in the city) applied.

Norton's rhetoric aside, D.C. residents clearly want an escape from their public schools. And with good reason.

Despite the fact that as of 2001, D.C.'s per-pupil spending ratio was among the highest in the country — and about 60 percent higher than the national average — its schools consistently rank dead last among the states in virtually every measure of performance. The University of the District of Columbia reports that nearly 85 percent of its students who come from D.C. public schools need remedial classes, most averaging two years, before they can even begin to work toward a degree.

Norton and other anti-voucher segregationists argue that Armey's $45 million would be better spent on D.C.'s public school system. Why? For more results like these? More money hasn't solved the problem.

Even giving Norton the benefit of the doubt — the questionable (read: wrong) argument that a huge influx of federal money will help D.C.'s public schools — still doesn't explain her opposition to the Armey plan.

The Armey plan would take zero money from D.C.'s public schools. When a kid leaves to attend a private school on a voucher, the federal money that came with him stays behind. It stays with the public school.

Norton and her chorus on the left have long advocated more money per pupil and smaller class sizes as remedies for public school failures. But under the Armey plan, per-pupil expenditures in D.C. would increase and class sizes would decrease as kids leave for private options and federal money stays behind.

So why does Norton still oppose the plan?

My guess is that she fears its success. If private schools succeed where public schools have failed, she'll hear calls for more extensive and revolutionary voucher programs. Public schools will be forced to innovate. They'll have no choice but to hold teachers, administrators, principals and, yes, teachers' unions, accountable. And the politicians who support them? They'd be held accountable, too.

So long as public schools monopolize low-income education, Norton and her cohorts can keep asking for more money to solve the problem. But if competition and the threat of losing students inspires D.C.'s public schools to start educating — and results follow, Norton and the unions begin to lose their grip on power.

So Norton and the teachers' unions continue their anti-voucher crusade, promulgating the same racist education segregation that George Wallace and his Dixiecrat torchbearers sought to preserve two generations ago.

Make no mistake. D.C.'s public schools are segregated. They're just 4 percent white, as affluent white (and black) parents have sought private options or fled to the suburbs. They're economically segregated, too. Over seven in 10 kids qualify for free or assisted lunch programs.

Separate wasn't equal in 1954. It isn't equal today. It's time Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton stopped blocking the door to D.C.'s better schools, and let the low-income, non-white kids of the nation's capital get a decent, desegregated education.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va., and is the publisher of the Web log, The

Respond to the Writer