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Do children in America’s capitol have better options than those in Detroit?

Thanks to View colleague Henry Payne for pointing out a good feature of the recent budget agreement in Washington, DC: It breathes new life into the DC school voucher plan, giving it a five-year extension.

That’s good news all around. The program is popular with district residents, and garners near-universal support from parents who have taken advantage of the program.

Debates over school reform often break down into the question of whether we should fix existing schools, or give children the opportunity to get out of the school they’re assigned to. In reality, we need both reform leaders within the establishment schools, and “get out of jail” cards for public school students.

Reformers from the inside, such as Paul Vallas (various cities), Joel Klein (New York) and Michelle Rhee (Washington DC) are necessary for the vast number of children who will remain in the default school system. But it’s wrong to expect a single, top-down reformer to fix it all. After all, a Vallas, Klein, or Rhee can and does make mistakes–and enemies, thus short-circuiting improvements.

Letting the children of a district attend a number of different schools through a school choice program that includes privately run schools makes sure that reform in a city doesn’t depend on the managerial or (more importantly, perhaps) political skill of any one leader. A school choice approach also provides an immediate alternative for today’s schoolchildren. After all, it’s fine and dandy to say that a new after-school or reading program will fix a public school three years from now. But if you’re the parent of a child in a troubled school, you don’t want to let your child wait three years. That’s certainly the path taken by the Obamas, the Clintons, and other politicians (usually Democrats) who speak in glowing terms of “public education” but oppose parental choice.

The most recent evaluation of the DC scholarship program found mixed results. Some of the hoped-for statistical results did not come through, though parents report a high degree of satisfaction.

Still, giving families a choice has a moral value in and of itself. It also seems to have improved the graduation prospects of students who were given the opportunity to take a scholarship, but never used it. To quote one analyst, “the major finding of this report, and it is MAJOR, is that students who were randomly selected to receive vouchers had an 82% graduation rate.That’s 12 percentage points higher than the students who didn’t receive vouchers. Students who actually used their vouchers had graduation rates that were 21% higher.”

Given that the district is a federal entity, the DC scholarship program is a federal program that merits further support.

Now if children in Detroit could get something similar.