WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- Seventy-seven congresses ago, a young first-term member of the House of Representatives, who wanted to limit the institution of slavery and eventually roll it back, proposed to start with a small but symbolically important step. Abolish slavery, Abraham Lincoln proposed, in the national capital -- the District of Columbia.
Today, there are no more plantations. Nor, in general, is there widespread denial of official civil liberties: voting, freedom of association, equal protection. But there are what might be called "economic sector plantations" -- small areas where institutional racism, economic monopoly, or the bigotry of low expectations is meaningfully holding back blacks, Latinos, and other minorities.
It's quite appropriate that there is widespread talk about getting kids across the country off the plantation, through the use of school choice "vouchers" that let parents decide which schools, public or private, get the money to teach their children. It's richly symbolic -- in a way even proponents may not appreciate -- that a bill to expand such choice by setting up a program in Washington is steaming through Congress, and picking up support from all sorts of unexpected places.
Consider the basics:
-- In 1998, the share of Washington 4th graders who scored "proficient" or better on a standardized reading assessment was 10 percent; 72 percent failed to reach even a "basic" skill level. Eighth graders eked out a slightly better rating -- 12 percent were proficient or better, while 56 percent failed to achieve even a basic level of skills. (These statistics are courtesy of the recent congressional testimony by Under Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok.)
-- On math, the numbers are worse. In 2000, 6 percent of Washington 4th graders scored proficient or better. Seventy-six percent were below basic level. In the 8th grade, 6 percent were proficient or better; 77 percent were below even basic.
Even Education Week, the increasingly pro-monopoly voice-mailbox of the education establishment, rates Washington schools at a D+ level. That the schools are a notch above "F" is thanks mainly to the city's exploding charter school sector, which now accounts for better than 10 percent of public-school students.
The Department of Education, Hickok said, has been "disappointed" by the performance results cited above. The Department of Education is a master of understatement.
Enter two proposals. The Bush administration has advanced at least a pilot program for school vouchers on a national basis. True, at $75 million, nationally, this equals approximately 1/400th of the Senate tax cut bill President Bush considers inadequate. A portion of those funds would be earmarked for Washington. Still, a few thousand vouchers can make a world of difference.
On a more serious note, House Republicans have revived the former bill proposed by Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., to provide a voucher experiment in Washington on a scale matching that in place in Milwaukee, home of the nation's most ambitious school choice program.
Is it really fair to compare the Washington voucher movement with Lincoln's proposal in the 1850s? Of course not. No one, certainly not me, is attempting to compare them in terms of their moral or economic significance.
Then again, no less a self-proclaimed advocate of civil rights than Jessie Jackson Jr. has compared voucher advocates to "plantation owners."
Perhaps, as supporters proclaim, vouchers really are a civil rights issue. One doesn't see many of them picketing, being arrested, or getting beat up by the cops. This might be a healthy experience for today's would-be civil rights leaders of the center-right, as then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey told a small group of school voucher advocates last fall.
In Washington, however, the process is already picking up steam. This may explain why leading members of the city council, not to mention Mayor Anthony Williams, have been especially enthusiastic about school choice -- even as white limousine liberals and moderates, like Lieberman, shy away.
Where the elites are inching, public opinion in Washington has already surged: Black parents favor school choice by margins of about three to one.
Today, Washington, tomorrow, Mississippi. It went that way in the 1860s; in Brown vs. the Board of Education; and in the Civil Rights Act.
("Ed-biz" focuses on the dynamic, cutting edge of change in education, as business generates alternatives to public education, and promotes change within public education. Gregory Fossedal is a contributing editor to educationnews.org.)