Last week one branch of the DC City Council/School Board (some call it Congress) voted to establish a five-year pilot program to give 1300 kids in the District of Columbia vouchers to spend at their favorite private school. Each student will receive up to $7500. The idea, of course, is that the competition generated by allowing students to take the money and leave poor schools will improve the entire school system in the District.

I’ll be the first to admit that most of the DC public school system needs a lot of help but this is not a plan that will do anything to improve them. I could give you several reasons why but Dante Chinni writing in the Christian Science Monitor has done a much more eloquent job than I could.

While $7,500 may sound impressive, it is far below the $11,677 tuition at the average private school in Washington. In fact, almost two-thirds of the city’s private schools cost more than $7,500. And you can bet the cheaper options will quickly be filled.

But the bigger issue behind the entire voucher question, the one that its supporters claim is paramount, is that they will improve the public school through competition, like any other industry. There are problems with this argument, however.

Competition works in industry because companies compete for the business of consumers who choose to buy or not buy products. If manufacturers choose, they can ignore whole segments of society they don’t think will make them money. If General Motors decides it would rather not make a car for the extremely impoverished, it doesn’t have to. But what industry does the government mandate to exist and force every person of a certain age to be its customer?

And no amount of competition theory can explain how pulling the better students out of public education will somehow improve the schools. All the competition in the world cannot help overwhelmed teachers deal with kids whose parents, out of neglect or overextension, are not focused on their children’s education.

Thus, while the Bush administration is right that vouchers, in theory, might help some individuals (if the amounts are large enough), they miss several larger points. How can you keep good teachers working in increasingly difficult classrooms? How can you teach kids facing extremely difficult environments? These are the questions the D.C. "experiment" will examine.

Please don’t think that I’m an unqualified defender of the public schools in this country. Most local systems need some major reorganization and our national educational policy is a disgrace (and has been under Democrats and Republicans).

As a tool for reform, I like the concept of charter schools. They have potential to foster change because they give educators, parents and community leaders an opportunity to shed some of the bureaucracy and work together to implement new instructional ideas. But vouchers do nothing but suck funds out of the schools and hurt the students who don’t qualify to move or don’t want to.

My only hope in this DC "experiment" is that someone will be allowed to conduct an honest evaluation of the program. If that actually happens I’ll be prepared to eat my words if the results are actually good for the kids – both in and out of the program.