A provision in the omnibus spending bill, now wending its way through Congress, would strip federal funding of a successful school voucher program in the District of Columbia. At stake is the fate of 1,700 poor students who benefit from the program.
The provision could prove a great embarrassment for President Barack Obama, himself a product of private school education and whose daughters are currently enrolled in the prestigious Sidwell-Friends private school. Ironically two students in the DC school choice program attend Sidwell-Friends with President Obama’s children.
Even less edifying is the fact that the provision ending federal funding for the school voucher program was inserted into the omnibus spending bill by Senator Dick Durbin, also a product of private school education and whose children attend private schools. Many of the members of Congress supporting the measure are also former private school students.
The program in question is called the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, first passed by the Congress in 2004, providing up to $7500 for 1,700 poor students in the District of Columbia to attend private schools. The program has proven so popular that roughly four students for every slot available have applied for scholarships. According to the Wall Street Journal, “To qualify, a student’s household income must be at or below 185% of the poverty level. Some 99% of the participants are minority, and the average annual income is $23,000 for a family of four.”
Even though District of Columbia public schools receive generous funding of $14,400 per student, the DC public school system is one of the worst performing in the nation. Only half of DC public school students graduate from High School.
A study conducted by the Department of Education suggests that students in the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program performed slightly higher academically than those in public schools after nineteen months of instruction. Students in the program score higher in reading
An attempt to strip the Durbin language and restore funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program was defeated in the Senate largely along party lines by 48 to 39 with one Democrat, Senator Lieberman voting to restore funding and four Republicans, Senators Crapo, Murkowski, Specter, and Snowe voting to end funding,
If the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is so successful, helping students to perform better for just over half the price, then why are Democrats so opposed? The simple answer is that school vouchers, school choice, private school scholarships, or whatever such programs are called are vehemently opposed by the public school teachers unions. The unions’ opposition have less to do about the needs of students than it does about power. If school voucher programs are allowed the flourish, the power of the public school teachers unions over education will diminish. Worse, in order to survive, public schools will be forced to reform, an anathema for the public school teachers unions.
President Barack Obama is now in a quandary. If he signs a bill into law that, in effect, throws 1,700 poor, minority school children under the bus, President Obama will have suggested to many students and parents that his rhetoric about “hope and change” is just that-rhetoric. Prating about pouring more resources into public schools will not cut it. The DC public school system is already generously funded and has proven impervious to reform. Washington DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee support the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Will President Obama side with poor, minority students and reject the de-funding of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program or will he side with a group of largely wealthy, white members of Congress who want the program ended. President Obama is already defying the public school teachers unions by supporting merit pay for well performing teachers. He should go the full distance and support school choice as well. In standing up to a recalcitrant special interest group, one should always remember the Duke of Wellington’s maxim. “In for a penny. In for a pound.” No half measures for siding with students over politicians and union bosses.
Sources: 58 Senators Vote Against Poor D.C. Kids, Robert Bluey, Red State, March 10th, 2009
Obama Girls to Enroll at Sidwell Friends, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, November 22nd, 2008
DC School Choice, The Heritage Foundation
Obama’s School Choice, Wall Street Journal, February 25th, 2009