Today the U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act. Last month a strong bi-partisan coalition in Congress introduced the act reauthorizing the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which bolsters a burgeoning movement for education choice nationwide. Powerful opponents of school choice, unfortunately, don’t want embattled students in the nation’s capital to SOAR.
Congress launched the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2004. In spite of high demand, community support, and parental satisfaction, Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, inserted language in an omnibus spending bill preventing the program from accepting new students in 2009. President Obama acquiesced, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even rescinded new scholarships for the 2009-10 school year—despite an official U.S. Department of Education evaluation concluding that the “DC voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s official education research arm so far.”
Under the reauthorized program open to new students, DC Public Schools will continue to receive additional funds equal to the amount appropriated for Opportunity Scholarships. Elementary school children would be eligible for SOAR scholarships worth up to $8,000, and high school students would be eligible for scholarships worth up to $12,000. Those amounts are far less than half of DC public-school spending—which exceeds $25,000 per student, the average family income of DC Opportunity Scholarship students.
The SOAR Act brings hope to thousands of DC school children trapped in some of the country’s most dangerous and worst performing public schools. Students who were offered and used DC Opportunity Scholarships have a 91 percent graduation rate. Not surprisingly, three-quarters of DC residents support Congressional expansion of the program. In spite of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program’s documented success and strong local support, political opponents want to ground the SOAR Act—including the Obama Administration.
“[T]he Administration opposes the creation or expansion of private school voucher programs that are authorized by this bill,” read a statement released late yesterday afternoon. “The Federal Government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students. Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement.”
The reality is, the Opportunity Scholarship Program has generated nearly $300 million in federal funding for DC Public Schools and charter schools since FY 2004. And, the “What Works Clearinghouse“ in the President’s own education department validated the findings cited previously about the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.
The Obama Administration’s opposition statement comes on the heels of a March 22, 2011 letter to the House of Representatives from spokespersons of several special-interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, the DC Chapter of the National Organization for Women, and the Washington Teachers’ Union. They repeated their (discredited) claims that the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is unnecessary, unwanted, and unsuccessful.
Such claims are “offensive” and an attempt “to rewrite history,” according to former DC Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D), who served as chairman of the council’s education committee and worked with thousands of parents to help establish the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. DC Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) put the issue even more succinctly. He recently testified that he simply couldn’t look another working mother in the eye and tell her the only choice she had for her children was a failing school.
“The issue for me in this debate comes down to one question: Can the [scholarship program] increase the number of quality educational options for low-income families in the District? I believe that the answer is yes,” he said.
It is worth remembering that most members of Congress with school-age children do not sacrifice them to dysfunctional and dangerous DC public schools. Neither do President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Duncan. Why, then should DC parents sacrifice their children? That is the key question in the debate over SOAR.
Vicki E. Murray, PhD, is PRI Education Studies associate director and senior policy fellow.