Throwing D.C. Under the Bus


The White House is still dealing with the fallout from congressional budget negotiations that barely averted a government shutdown: angry progressives speaking out around the country, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray getting arrested during protests, and hundreds of thousands of Washington, D.C., residents feeling the sting of political betrayal.

In order to end the budget stalemate, President Obama allowed a provision that banned D.C. from using its own funds to help poor women access abortion. "John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it," Obama reportedly said to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the Oval Office.


Days later, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was still trying to smooth things over. "The president is a firm supporter of D.C. home rule and continues to be that," he told the Washington Post. "The choices that had to be made in this negotiation were not easy ones."

D.C. has a quirky governance structure: It is not a state and has no voting representation in Congress. Although the city was granted "home rule" in 1973, Congress also has final approval over the District's budget and the laws passed by its residents, making the city less a democracy and more of a colony, legally speaking. This is why our license plates read, "Taxation Without Representation."

As a result, D.C. and Capitol Hill have long had a paternalistic, sometimes abusive relationship. A random senator from state X doesn't score many political points back home for manipulating the lives of poor — mostly black — women and children in the District, but there is a reason Congress likes to stick its finger in the D.C. pot on controversial social issues.

Whether it has been the abolition of slavery, integration of public schools, education reform or, now, abortion — what happens to D.C. rarely stays in D.C. So if you are a progressive, the women and children of D.C. getting thrown under the proverbial bus is a very ominous sign.

This isn't the first time that Congress has used Washington, D.C., to wage a proxy war over contentious social issues. For years, the fact that slavery was legal in the city angered many Northern abolitionist members of Congress, according to the book Secret City. They submitted so many bills on the topic that in 1836, Congress imposed an eight-year moratorium against introducing the topic of slavery in the District.

Congress would later pass a law — nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation applied to the rest of the United States — resolving to pay $300 in federal money to District slaveholders to buy the freedom of each slave. In 1866, Congress gave black men the right to vote in the District. Twelve years later, black men had the right to vote everywhere else. And so on.


In the most recent budget battle, a lot of attention has rightly been paid to the battle over D.C. abortion and Planned Parenthood in general. It is surreal and outrageous that two men sitting in the Oval Office can control how my tax dollars may be spent on my body. But the other budget concession rider, providing private school funding for some residents of the District, also shows the big, clumsy foot of Congress in the lives of D.C. residents.

The agreement requires the District to continue a program that pays private school tuition for some children. I will not deconstruct the merits and demerits of this particular policy here, beyond pointing out that many of the District's democratically elected leaders oppose the program.


It's clear that more than a century of Congress's testing out education philosophies on the District of Columbia's children has transformed the educational landscape here. Washington, D.C., is the only city where Congress pays private school tuition. The percentage of the city's public school children attending charters is now 40 percent, also thanks to a law co-sponsored by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

In hard economic times, D.C. taxpayers are struggling to publicly fund a dual education system (or a three-part school system, if you add the publicly funded private schools to traditional public schools and charters). As a result of these policies, District residents are seeing mass closings of the city's publicly owned school buildings. We see newborn charter schools opening and sometimes flailing. Still more motivated families are creamed away to private schools on the public dime.


This "market" approach to education has rendered it nearly impossible for a critical mass of motivated parents to focus their efforts around improving a single system. To wit: My oldest child entered kindergarten six years ago. In that time, our local neighborhood school has closed or been moved three times.

We have not moved; we have watched the District's public school system being yanked out from beneath us. We are awash in mediocre "choices." Most infuriating as a parent: These are policies, paid for with our tax dollars, over which we have no control or influence.


After all these years, the meddling and occasional infusions of cash from Congress have done absolutely nothing to "lift all boats" or improve the city's quality of education. Yet amazingly, the D.C. reform model was part of the template for Obama's Race to the Top education policy.

With this latest concession by Obama, the D.C. political football has once again been punted, same as it ever was. Given D.C.'s status as a bellwether, this does not portend good things at all. It may not happen overnight, but progressives have been warned. The future of public education and a woman's right to control her body is in deep, deep trouble.


Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter