Famed Education Reformer Lauds DC Mayor's School Choice Stance

By Steve Brown | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Education reform leader and former New Jersey high school principal Joe Clark is among those cheering the latest development in the battle over school vouchers.

That development came late last week when Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams expressed his support for an experimental federal program that would allow public school students in his city to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools. Williams was immediately criticized for allegedly "selling out" to the Bush administration, but Clark Friday commended the mayor "for his introspection and fortitude.

A former Army drill sergeant, Clark attracted national attention in 1983 for reforming Patterson's Eastside High School. He was portrayed by actor Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film, "Lean on Me" and named one of the nation's ten "Principals of Leadership" in 1986.

"There is no question but that in America-especially as it relates to the needy: black, white, polka-dot, it does not matter-that we need to rethink the educational paradigm in this country," Clark said.

Williams touted private school voucher programs Thursday as a successful means to education reform and urged the Bush administration to provide federal funding for a D.C. school choice initiative.

In fact, Bush has proposed $75 million for a school choice incentive fund as part of the federal budget for Fiscal 2004, according to Dan Langan, spokesperson for Education Secretary Rod Paige.

"It would provide competitive awards to states, school districts and community-based non-profit organizations to provide scholarships to students," Langan said.

The students could apply the funds toward attendance at a public, private or charter school of their choice.

"A portion of that $75 million would be set aside for grant recipients in D.C.," Langan said, adding that specific details for the District had not yet been worked out.

In his statement, Williams said he "strongly" favored a "balanced approach to school choice."

"We are working closely with all parties to seize this landmark opportunity for the federal government to address the serious needs of our public schools and our public charter schools and to provide scholarships for some students to attend non-public, independent and parochial schools," Williams said.

The decision sparked immediate criticism from voucher opponents within the District and the U.S. Congress.

"If voucher advocates really want to help students and strengthen D.C. schools, they should stand with the citizens and teachers of Washington, D.C., who oppose school vouchers and support the use of effective educational programs and strategies," Sandra Feldman, American Federation of Teachers president said in a press release.

"It is disingenuous at best and duplicitous at worst to siphon money from the District's public schools to finance vouchers for private school education when there is already a proposal to cut $100 million from the city's school budget," Feldman said.

Clark differed, saying tax dollars should be shifted from "these regal-minded, condescending, bureaucratic louts" and given to parents so they can decide where their children go to school. He said the move to voucher programs was "inevitable" and "must come to fruition" nationwide.

"I think it's absolutely deplorable and despicable that we subject the needy in our society to an inferior educational process while the children of the elitists in our society flourish in excellent academic environments," Clark said.

The District's delegate in the U.S. House, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), accused Williams of "selling out" in Thursday's Washington Post, saying the mayor "went behind her back" in supporting the voucher program.

Clark told CNSNews.com he becomes "very livid, almost in a state of apoplectic rage" when members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticize the idea of school vouchers.

"Every single one of them send their kids to prestigious, white elitist schools. If it's good enough for them, then it's good enough for the needy in our society so that they will be able to obtain an education that will enable them to be competitive in a highly complex society," Clark said.

Among the most vocal congressional critics of vouchers is Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "Students in the District of Columbia deserve a good education, and voucher plans will not provide it," Kennedy stated in a release Thursday.

"Public funds should be used for public schools, not to pay for a small number of students to attend private schools," Kennedy added.

Yet Williams stipulated that "We must seek every opportunity to do what is best for our children" in private, parochial, public and charter schools.

"Let me be very clear in saying that, to be fully successful, any federally funded program that provides scholarships for private schools must be balanced with direct assistance to (public schools) and with additional funding for charter schools in the District," Williams said in his statement.

Clark said that not only would the voucher program be a "boon to the needy" in the District, but that it would also serve as a "mechanism to enhance the image of educators."

"You would have a plethora of job opportunities (for teachers) as opposed to having them relegated to simple government schools," Clark said.

He explained that the public school system today was run a "bureaucracy that is putrid and fetid to the core" that is "turning out academically inferior young people, especially American blacks."

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