Over the weekend the editors of the Washington Post came out once again in favor of re-authorization of the SOAR Act that provides private school vouchers for low-income children in the nation’s capital. The editorial board has supported school choice plans across the country for decades. Here’s the background.
In 1999, I decided that I was going to get a school voucher plan approved for Washington, D.C. The reason for my decision back then originated with my and my wife’s love for this city. We met here as college students, settled in D.C. when we were first married, and then moved to Reston, Virginia to raise our family. We knew that Washington would not be a great town unless it had great schools.
But the education system was a complete mess. Little teaching was actually going on in the classrooms. The facilities were literally crumbling. Drugs, weapons, and gang activity was prevalent in the hallways. As a political libertarian, I understood that only the competition for students would solve the seemingly intractable problems in the schools. But I also recognized that no one would listen to me. I needed someone with local credibility to get behind this policy solution. I settled on the Washington Post’s Colbert King as the person to advance my proposal. The reason that I selected Mr. King was that I observed from his weekly column that he too was passionate about the success of his hometown, and he wrote from the perspective that people living in Washington, D.C. should solve their own problems.
It took me months of persuasion but there I was one morning sitting in the editorial boardroom of the Washington Post with Mr. King. I had brought along with me Darcy Olson, now the CEO of the Goldwater Institute, but at the time the director of family and education policy at the CATO Institute. We talked about school vouchers for an hour.
At the end of our discussion, during which I found Mr. King to be extremely kind and attentive, the Washington Post columnist explained that he could not get behind the concept. He stated that he was worried about what would happen to the quality of the education for those who were left behind when others received private school scholarships. Extremely disappointed, but invigorated by the chance to sit with Mr. King, I left the meeting.
But then something magical happened. Unsigned editorial after editorial began appearing in the Post arguing in favor of proposals for school choice in various localities. This was a drastic reversal of the newspaper’s previous viewpoint. The change was recognized by Clint Bolick in his book Voucher Wars (CATO Institute, 2003). In writing about the introduction of the nation’s first private school voucher plan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mr. Bolick states:
“Ultimately, the Post concluded that because it wouldn’t help many children and was of doubtful constitutional validity, ‘choice is not the answer to the gross inequities that prevail among America’s schools.’ But the editorial conferred a strong and unexpected establishment imprimatur on our effort. And only a few years later, the Post abandoned its reticence and become one of the nation’s most consistent and influential backers of school choice experiments” (p. 58).
To my amazement I would learn later that Mr. King was writing these pieces.
The Post columnist does not pen these opinions anymore; this job has now been passed on to someone else. But the tradition strongly continues. From Saturday’s piece:
“The organization that administers the federal school voucher program in the District has received 1,825 applications this year. The largest share, 25.6 percent or 468 applications, comes from Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River. The smallest, 0.8 percent or 15 families, is from Ward 3 in Northwest. It makes sense that demand is greatest where public schools are worst and families can’t afford private school or are unable to move to where the public schools are better. What doesn’t make sense is the desire — particularly among some D.C. elected officials — to try to kill off this program, thus denying low-income parents a choice that is taken for granted by those who are more affluent.”