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April 06, 2011

Biddle sends mixed message on vouchers

D.C. Councilmember Sekou Biddle (D-At-Large) has written to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the subject of congressional imposition on the District of vouchers for private and religious schools. That program passed the House as H.R. 471, and is now under consideration by the Senate.

In his letter to Reid, Biddle supports the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), but expresses “some serious concerns about H.R. 471, which I believe compromise educational benefits of the program.”

He goes on to write: “In regard to human rights, the bill touches on two issues: 1) The right to a quality public education; and, 2) the right to protections afforded under the District’s Human Rights Act. The bill also raises two critical civil rights issues: 1) the right of self-determination for the District of Columbia; and, 2) the separation of church and state.”

Okay. But Biddle continues [emphasis as in original]:

“I do support the $60 million in additional Federal funds to sustain education reform initiatives of DCPS, DCPCS and OSP. Despite my support for additional Federal funds included in this legislation, I believe that the OSP should not fund any organizations that fail to adhere to the same accountability standards as public and public charter schools. For example, some private schools operate outside the ant-discrimination provisions of the District’s Human Rights Act.

“To protect against discrimination, I will introduce legislation that prevents the use of local District funds in the administration of scholarships to organizations that do not fully comply with the District’s Human Rights Act. I strongly urge the Senate to require all organizations, including those that are exempt, to adhere to the District’s Human Rights Act.”

This is both unsatisfying and incoherent. It is unsatisfying because denying local administrative funds pales beside the substantial federal funds being lavished on school vouchers in the District despite vouchers having been shown to be a failure, as in the case of Milwaukee. I hasten to remind everyone that D.C. residents pay federal taxes just like residents of the 50 states, yet the OSP if passed will cause our federal tax dollars to be showered upon a failed program without our being properly represented in Congress and against the express wishes of the people of the District.

Biddle’s statement is incoherent when he says, “I strongly urge the Senate to require all organizations, including those that are exempt, to adhere to the District’s Human Rights Act.” Excuse me, Councilmember, but the exemption to which you refer stems from the religious freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which cannot be superseded by a congressional statute. Thus, any federal law that requires private religious schools receiving vouchers to adhere to the D.C. Human Rights Act would be a dead letter.

Biddle is trying to have it both ways on vouchers, and his proposal is unworkable. The result is that he supports federal funding for vouchers. This goes against GLAA's longstanding opposition to publicly funded vouchers for private schools, which we spelled out in our policy brief, “Agenda: 2010” (which we distributed to all D.C. Council candidates in the April 26 special election).

Here is GLAA's question on vouchers and Sekou Biddle’s response:

10. Will you oppose both federal and local voucher programs that fund students in religious schools that are beyond the protections of the D.C. Human Rights Act?

“Yes, However, I believe that the voucher program can be an effective tool for giving low-income students educational opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Unlike Speak John Boehner, I don’t believe that vouchers should be used as a subsidy for religious institutions.”

This muddled answer essentially takes both sides of the issue. Longtime GLAA member Craig Howell reported the following from the March 29 At-Large candidate forum:

“The most important answer for our immediate purposes was from Biddle, who went all Kwame Brown on us and endorsed vouchers (after originally telling us otherwise). He made a few rhetorical nods about not funding discrimination and respecting the DC Human Rights Act, but obviously that angle was not serious enough for him to challenge the Congressional plan. He said DC public schools have failed our residents and our students too long. He cited the potential loss of millions of federal dollars for DCPS and vouchers if we didn't get vouchers as well.”

The “rhetorical nods about not funding discrimination and respecting the DC Human Rights Act” that Craig describes are consistent with Biddle’s answer to GLAA's questionnaire and his letter to Senator Reid. Biddle answers in the classic Clintonian style, where everyone can see their own view reflected. We cannot accept this have-it-both-ways approach. We are disappointed in Biddle and other of his colleagues who declined to sign a letter to Congress requested by GLAA and others opposing the imposition of vouchers. Too many D.C. officials have flip-flopped on this issue; Biddle's position is not a flip-flop, it is just a muddled mess.


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Biddle's position is a flip-flop!!

He has not once brought up DC Human Rights Act at any candidate forum. And I have been to several. Only Weaver, Page and to a lesser degree Lopez have publicly opposed vouchers based on the DC Human Rights Act. They have done it in Ward 8,Ward 3, Ward 2. Biddle has yet to defend us in the voucher debate. Compare what Weaver and Biddle have said in the candidate forums and what they wrote on their GLAA responses.

Biddle always talks about his parents involvement in the Civil Rights movement --- would it be acceptable to take money from a Republican Congress for school programs that discriminate based on race or national origin?

I refuse to accept the lesser of two evils argument anymore. Weaver will get my vote.

In order for Biddle to be fairly accused not just of being muddled and wrong but of flip-flopping, he needs to have taken a clear position in the first place. His response to GLAA essentially took both sides of the issue in a Clintonian fashion. I hope that doesn't sound to you like praise. My criticism of Biddle in the above blog entry is fairly stern.

Lots of candidates try and play both sides of an issue. Biddle is trying to be clever but this type of flip-flop doesn't win him votes. I suppose he thinks he can pull of Fully Loaded or a Sam Aurora and no one will notice. And perhaps he is right. Maybe there will be no consequences. I had been leaning towards a vote for Biddle. I am definitely leaning in another direction.

Charlie, I have shown that Biddle's position, while highly problematic, is NOT a flip-flop. Persisting in that mischaracterization does not help our cause.

Rick I agree with what you wrote but I do see it as a flip-flop based on the actions two highest rated GLAA candidates.

Weaver and Biddle have the same answer, yes they would oppose but they see value in program. Weaver has stuck to that at every campaign stop...he opposes until private schools sign on to DC Human Rights Act or those schools are prohibited from receiving the voucher. Biddle said he would oppose vouchers, but he signed a letter of support for the program without clarification. He defends that stance at every debate.

I applaud Weaver for standing up for GLAA family values at every turn.

Janet, I quoted what Biddle said to us in his questionnaire response, and it was not a simple "yes" to opposing vouchers but a "yes, however" in which he also supported them. That kind of have-it-both-ways answer is a big problem, but it doesn't provide a basis for calling his more recent statements a flip-flop.

I get that you see yes as no. I don't.

And the thing is, I don't care that much about a candidate's position on vouchers. But when they take whatever position that the majority of the people in the room want to hear I have a problem. If they are not guided by principles how can you trust what they say about the other issues the GLAA questionnaire covers?

No, Charlie. Where in the world do you get the idea the I see yes as no? You are not being honest here. "Yes, however" is how Biddle began his answer, which I bloody well quoted in full above, and you damn well know that "yes, however" is not the same as yes. You also damn well know that I wrote a harsh critique of Biddle. His muddled answer to us is not a sound basis for accusing him specifically of flip-flopping. To be able to flip-flop requirse that one's initial position be clear; here it was not. If you can take the piece above as any kind of defense of him despite my blistering criticism, then I wonder what planet you are on. For us to be effective in our advocacy we need to recognize that all sins are not the same. I specifically described Biddle's answer as Clintonian and have-it-both-ways. To pretend not to have noticed or understood that is perverse.

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