DC Democrats Sell Minority Students' Education Short

The city's failed public schools water down their standards rather than raise expectations.

Editor's note: The following is the first in a series of FrontPage articles that will unmask the racial injustice of Democrat-controlled education by examining some of the nation's worst (and most well-funded) school districts. Our first exposé features the Washington, DC public school system and will be followed by similar examples from across the country.

The Washington, DC State Board of Education has come up with a novel plan to address the fact that a mere 56% of students who attend the city's non-charter public schools manage to graduate within four years, and that a large percentage of those who do earn a diploma are nonetheless functionally illiterate. Indeed, DC students nowadays score, on average, a paltry 1220 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT exam—lower than their counterparts anywhere else in the United States, and light years below the national average of 1500. As a “solution” to this educational disaster, the Board of Ed is now proposing to eliminate its current requirement that students, in order to graduate, must take a civics class that teaches how the U.S. government is structured and how it functions. The Board's logic is quite simple: Only a tiny percentage of DC students earn respectable scores in the civics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test; thus, if schools will only eliminate their pesky civics requirement—and replace it with art, music, gym, and off-campus sports programs—test scores should rise.

It bears mention that this demeaning scheme—which treats the majority-black students of DC as incompetents who cannot be expected to achieve even the barest shred of academic mastery—was concocted by a Board of Education that is run almost entirely by Democrats and progressives. In this regard, the DC schools have much in common with all the other failed, urban school systems that currently pepper the American landscape: As author Jonah Goldberg points out, Democrats and progressives have “controlled the large inner-city school systems for generations.”

In their effort to explain away the failures of the public schools in DC and elsewhere, progressives have predictably trotted out their one-size-fits-all mantra: insufficient funding. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for one, calls for greater “investment” in education at every level. Congressional Progressive Caucus member Maxine Waters laments that “educational systems ... are failing” because “we don't really invest” in them. Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman suggests that increased spending on education today would relieve society of the much greater burden of having to pay the costs associated with incarcerating uneducated prisoners later on. Barack Obama, pledging to “continue to make education a national mission,” has repeatedly called for increased educational expenditures. The highly influential Center for American Progress urges “continued investment in education in order to grow our economy and rebuild the middle class.” And the Economic Policy Institute has derided policymakers at federal, state, and local levels “for not devoting more resources to education.”

But the notion that the U.S. spends too little on public education is a blatant falsehood. American taxpayers already spend some $600 billion per year on public elementary and secondary schools, with average per-pupil expenditures nationwide currently at an all-time high of about $11,000—a nearly fourfold increase (in constant present-day dollars) since 1961. But even this figure is dwarfed by the $29,400 per-pupil cost of a public elementary and high-school education in Washington, DC. That astounding sum is nearly as much as the yearly cost of an undergraduate education at Harvard. But as evidenced by the dismal academic performance of DC students, American taxpayers are getting essentially nothing of any value in return for their enormous outlays.

The failure of public schools in DC and other major cities to properly educate American students—particularly nonwhite minorities—can be attributed largely to the policies and priorities of the teachers unions. Most significant are the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA) and the 1.5 million-member member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Devoted to promoting all manner of left-wing political agendas, these unions rank among the most powerful political forces in the United States. The NEA, for instance, employs a larger number of political organizers than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined. Key among those organizers is a corps of directors, known collectively as UniServ, who assist local teachers unions with collective bargaining and the dissemination of the NEA's political messages. UniServ has consistently been the NEA's most expensive budget item.

Fortune magazine routinely ranks the NEA among the top 15 in its “Washington's Power 25” list of organizations that wield the greatest political influence in the American legislative system. The Association has earned that rating, in large measure, by making almost $31 million in campaign contributions to political candidates since the early 1990s. The AFT, for its part, has given more than $28 million to its own favored candidates. Of the $59 million in combined NEA and AFT campaign donations—which do not include expenditures on such politically oriented initiatives as television ads or get-out-the-vote efforts—more than $56 million (i.e., 95%) has gone to Democrats.

Even as students in DC and other big cities are condemned to a high likelihood of academic failure, teachers unions everywhere object to proposed merit-pay legislation that would reward good instructors and punish bad ones, in some cases even filing suit to overturn such laws. Moreover, the unions have made it enormously expensive, laborious, and time-consuming to get any tenured teacher fired, no matter how incompetent he or she may be.

The teachers unions likewise oppose voucher programs that would enable the parents of children who attend failing, inner-city public schools, to send their youngsters instead to private schools where they might actually have a chance to succeed academically. Most noteworthy is the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), a federally funded voucher initiative that provides scholarships to help low-income students in Washington attend private schools of their choice. Not only does DCOSP produce far higher student-graduation rates than the city's public schools, but it does so for a small fraction of the cost—$8,000 per K-8 student, and $12,000 per high-school student.

Like the teachers unions, progressive Democratic lawmakers—whose political lifeblood is oxygenated by union cash—adamantly oppose voucher programs on the theory that they siphon vital funds away from public schools. That opposition, however, does not prevent these same well-heeled politicos from sending their own children to the most elite, expensive private schools in existence. When former Vice President Al Gore, for example, was asked why he opposed school vouchers while sending his own son to a private school, he reluctantly acknowledged: “If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing, I might be for vouchers, too.” Similarly, Barack Obama, another longtime opponent of voucher programs, sends his two daughters to the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in DC, where annual tuition costs exceed $33,000. Meanwhile, a high percentage of DC's other students—whose parents cannot afford to send them to Sidwell or anyplace like it—are forced to squander away more than a decade of their lives in schools where they learn nothing, and where rivers of taxpayer dollars are routinely flushed into a putrid cesspool of incompetence and unaccountability.

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