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Children as Guinea Pigs

By Deborah Menkart

By Deborah Menkart

School officials in Washington, D.C., have begun an experiment on low-income children, most of whom are African American and Latino. The D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michele A. Rhee, championed by both candidates during the presidential debates, has invited Harvard University economist Roland Fryer — described in the Washington Post as "a 30-year-old wunderkind" — to conduct an experiment on the impact of providing students a financial incentive to attend school. Originally called School Is Money, this initiative pays students in 14 D.C. middle schools (about 3,000 students) $100 every two weeks for good attendance and behavior. The program, now called Capital Gains, deposits money into a bank account in the student's name. The city projects spending $2.7 million on the program the first year.

This experiment is one of a few similar initiatives being tried in urban school systems, including New York, Baltimore, and Chicago. It came to D.C. with the sole approval of the chancellor who reports only to the mayor. There were no public hearings.

If the public had been allowed to weigh in before the Capital Gains program was launched in October of 2008, here are some of the serious concerns that might have been raised: