The District of Columbia’s alternate City Council/School Board/Big Pappa (aka Congress) finally passed the voucher plan for DC schools that has been bouncing around their chambers for most of the past year. I’ve ranted about this program many times before so feel free to click on something else if this gets too repetitive (or more boring than usual :-).

I’m not a fan of vouchers as a public school reform program but, unlike some of my colleagues, I think they deserve a real test. Although the locally-funded programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland have been around for at least five years, the results have been inconclusive at best and have had major problems due to lack of accountability (financially and educationally). I certainly don’t buy the claims of some that taking money out of the public schools will "enrich" them.

The biggest problem with a "free market" approach to school choice is that picking a school for their children will demand much more involvement and research by parents than buying a consumer product. Most parents, especially in the poor performing schools, can’t be bothered to come to school open house. And most will need training to understand how to use the available data to compare the schools they have to choose from.

Being an optimist, I’m hoping that the DC plan will be a valid test of the voucher concept. For one thing it will get much more national attention being in the nation’s capital and funded with federal money. For another, most DC schools are in such poor shape (but NOT all of them!) that any reform will certainly help the kids. Considering the waste and corruption in the administrative structure of the DC school system, additional money for education that doesn’t have to go through that dirty filter will be welcome.

This test, however, has some major problems from day one. Congress, as they usually do, underfunded the program. The plan will give up to $7500 a year for at least 1600 kids to attend private and parochial schools beginning next fall. That $7500 will not cover the tuition at most of the private schools in the District and 1600 kids are just a small part of the 65,000 students in DC schools. Then there’s the matter of just finding empty seats in the private schools. Most of them, especially the parochial schools, are already close to capacity and some private schools have already said they won’t participate in the program.

But the test is here and let’s hope it’s a fair one. Fair means that the money sent to the private schools is properly accounted for. Fair means that the students who move are evaluated using exactly the same tools as the students who remain in the public schools. And, finally, meaning that everyone involved – parents, students and the rest of us paying the bills – gets an honest, independent appraisal of vouchers as an alternative to public schools, without the political grandstanding and inflated claims that usually accompany these programs.

As I said, I’m an optimist.