All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1995

Setting an Example

Local Government Has Failed in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bandow is a widely-published writer.

Washington, D.C., is not just the home of the national government. It also contains a local government struggling with the manifold problems that afflict so many cities across America. As such, it has become a dramatic showcase of the failure of statism.

The problem is really neither the city’s nonpareil mayor nor extraordinary bloat and waste. Rather, the problem is that even the approach of fiscal Armageddon has not convinced the governing establishment that liberty beats politics. Never mind that the city is operating largely at the sufferance of a congressionally-established financial control board. Officials still hope to survive by playing fiscal shell games, begging more money from Congress, and tinkering around the edges.

The city’s pork politics is mundane, however, compared to the chaos of Washington’s schools. The city’s liberal white elite send their kids to private institutions; most middle-class white families live in the suburbs, where the schools are adequate. The city’s poor, largely black, population, however, remains trapped in the city—and their children are stuck in city schools. The results are horrifying.

By and large, the public schools don’t teach. Inner-city students are warehoused and given diplomas that some have trouble reading. Many graduates have simply wasted 12 years of their lives. No wonder so many kids view the streets, drug gangs, and unwed parenthood as better alternatives.

But that’s not all. Drug use and violence are rampant in city schools. In fact, the schools are not even able to guarantee the physical safety of students. Earlier this year a 14-year-old sophomore was gunned down at Cardozo High School. The apparent murderers were 14 and 17. “I don’t think we could have avoided it,” said school superintendent Franklin Smith. “In the last few years, we have installed metal detectors, trained more security personnel and . . . have secured police officers to patrol in and around our schools.” He sounded as if he was talking about jails instead of schools.

Educational establishment lobbyists admit that murder and mayhem at school is bad, but seem to believe it is a result of inadequate government spending, too few federal programs, and the depredations of budget-cutting visigoths. Yet, according to the Department of Education, the District spent an astounding $9,377 per student per year in 1990—more than any state and the 40 largest school districts. This is three times the average tuition of private and parochial schools. Even Gonzaga High School, one of the city’s elite institutions, was charging only $7,100 annually.

Incredibly, these numbers understate the government’s outlays. D.C. apparently twists its figures to suggest greater school enrollment and attendance. According to David Boaz of the Cato Institute, it appears that “District schools are spending $12,875 for every student who’s actually in a classroom on any given day.” For that amount of money we could send five students to the average private school!

What is this situation if not a crisis? Children aren’t learning, money is being wasted, and kids are being murdered. Something is drastically wrong. Dire measures would seem to be called for.

The D.C. City Council, to its credit, suggested a package of reforms, including charter schools, but the school board said no. Last year Superintendent Smith proposed privatizing the management of 15 schools. The school board refused to even consider his proposal. A few desperate board members have since rallied to his side, but privatization opponents boycotted meetings to prevent a vote.

A number of congressmen are also leading a campaign to find private individuals and firms to voluntarily fix up Washington’s schools by donating materials and labor. Philanthropy is a good thing, of course, but it doesn’t make much sense to repaint classrooms if drug deals and murders instead of learning still occur in them. The District’s educational problems obviously run much deeper than a new coat of paint.

The real solution is to abolish the government’s educational monopoly. Limited privatization and voluntary vouchers, though distressingly modest, would at least point the way for additional reform. Yet the bureaucracy, supported by a surprising number of citizens who apparently can’t imagine a better world, want to do nothing. Thelmiah Lee, Jr., for example, has founded a group called D.C. Save Our Schools. Said Lee: “We will not allow vouchers, will not allow charter schools in the District of Columbia.” What the heck—just do more of the same, irrespective of the consequences.

This position is seemingly shared by some intellectuals who should know better. Argues Robert Wright of the New Republic: “Even if it’s true that mindless bureaucracy ruined the public schools and that welfare-state liberals created the underclass, the fact remains that at this point neither problem will be solved without lots of money, more wisely spent.” More wisely spent by whom? The D.C. school board, which is already pouring almost $13,000 per student into failing institutions?

Such attitudes are also reflected in the congressional debate over the Department of Education. What could be more ludicrous than a $33 billion Cabinet office for a local function? In fact, federal money typically accounts for no more than six percent of school district spending. It would make more sense to leave the money there to start with.

Of course, supporters explain that the DOE is supposed to help localities do their job. But has it? Test scores are lower and schools are more violent than when Congress created the department in 1979; U.S. students remain woefully behind their international counterparts. Concluded a task force headed by Representative Joe Scarborough: “There can be no doubt that the Department of Education did not add value to the educational performance in the 1980s. In fact, there is significant evidence that we are doing our job more poorly than ever before.” Yet opposition to dismantling the Department, President Jimmy Carter’s present to the National Education Association, remains fierce. In addition to those directly benefiting from its spending are generic devotees of government. For instance, columnist Marianne Means complains that “the inescapable message” of those who want to eliminate DOE “is that they want to downgrade the importance of education in America’s future.” But wouldn’t improving the schools be a better means of emphasizing education than inflating the bureaucracy?

Don’t do what we do should be the motto of Washington. The failure to understand either the moral or practical benefits of freedom infects local officials no less than the federal establishment. As a result, the nation’s capital continues to exhibit government’s dismal failure.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.