D.C. Mayor Reverses Course, Backs School Vouchers

Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams is cautiously voicing support for President Bush's school voucher program, arguing that improvements in the U.S. capital's schools are not happening as quickly or as well as they should.

"Over the past four years -- we have put a lot of additional money into the schools and while we are seeing some better outcomes -- we're not seeing them as fast as I'd like."

Williams, who was elected to a second term in November, is the latest Washington politician to try to improve a struggling public school system that has for years turned out students who perform well beneath the national average.

He and other local officials are so frustrated at the pace of school improvement that they are cautiously voicing support for a program that would give some D.C. residents federal money to pay for private school tuition.

"The people who are not benefiting [in public schools] are people with the lowest incomes, with the biggest problems and the most severe challenges. And I think it's about time to give them a voice and give them a choice," he said.

The mayor's decision has already drawn protests in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. Voucher opponents, like Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress, argues that states lose limited dollars to run school districts every time a student is shuttled into a private program.

"Voucher referendums here and everywhere else in the United States have opposed vouchers because most parents know what D.C. residents know -- that there is one federal, always inadequate, education pot and that what would go to private schools would reduce that public pot, pure and simple," she said.

The Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional to use taxpayer money for private and parochial schools, forcing opponents to turn to state constitutions to throw up roadblocks to vouchers.

Opponents in D.C. are also mounting protests, and have leveled their sites on the mayor.

But Williams, who said that he wants to avoid parents voting with their feet -- by moving out of a community that can't provide adequate education for their children -- sounds like he is ready for a fight.

"I didn't get elected to 1) be mayor for life and 2) just to sit around and watch Oprah and eat Cheetos," he said.

Williams said some vested interests like the teachers union -- currently embroiled in its own scandal -- are on a hair trigger to mobilize very quickly while groups that are likely to receive the benefit of vouchers don't have a voice.

"They're harder to organize and they've got the biggest challenge," Williams said.

The mayor said he will be working to identify those people and get them organized. He will have an ally in that effort in Education Secretary Rod Paige, who very much wants to see a school voucher program succeed in the nation's capital so it can be expanded to other parts of the country.

Fox News' Brian Wilson contributed to this report.