One Last Hope for D.C. Voucher Program

In early May, President Obama presented a revised 2010 budget that included $12.2 million for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. The proposal represented a “compromise” solution to DC’s embattled voucher program, but is hardly a gain for low-income students and their parents.

The DC voucher plan currently awards up to $7500 to approximately 1700 students to attend private schools. The original 2010 budget proposed by Congress, now controlled by Democrats, ended the voucher program by refusing to fund it. Under Obama’s compromise, the money will fund those students already enrolled in private schools with vouchers to prevent “disruption” of their education.

In future, unfortunately, no students will be funded. Obama’s plan simply extends the program for a few more years and for a small number of students before ending it entirely. While the compromise plan is a small step forward from the earlier proposals that actually rescinded scholarships already awarded, it does little to help the thousands of DC students stuck in poorly performing public schools.

These students should expect no help from President Obama or Congress, despite their rhetoric about freedom, equality, and opportunity. These politicians rely on support from teacher unions and liberal education groups that vehemently oppose vouchers.

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers claim on their websites that vouchers are a threat to public education because they take public money and transfer it to private schools. They further claim that vouchers are elitist, and violate the principle of separation of church and state. And they charge that vouchers undermine student performance because private schools lack the accountability that public schools have.

Such arguments clearly stem from a thinly veiled worry that vouchers will jeopardize the monopoly unions have held on public education and its public perception for decades. After all, vouchers only threaten public education when public schools are failing to do their job. They are no more elitist than a public school system that forces students to attend schools based on geography rather than parent choice. And research shows that vouchers have improved student performance after several years in multiple cities with choice programs.

The appeal and value of private education should not be lost on lawmakers. A recent Heritage Foundation study found that in 2007 more than 37 percent of Representatives and 45 percent of Senators sent their own children to private school, more than double the national average of 11.5 percent. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, for example, vocally opposed vouchers though her own daughter attended private school. Nor should the appeal of private education be lost on President Obama who sent his daughters to private school in Chicago and continues to do so in Washington.

Yet these same politicians who so obviously recognize the benefits of private education for their own children oppose vouchers. In so doing, they make poor children in underperforming public schools the sacrificial lambs at the altar of powerful teacher unions.

Despite the dismal outlook for educational choice on Capitol Hill, some supporters, including Senator Joseph Lieberman, hope to revive the voucher program entirely by reopening it to a debate and vote this year. Perhaps Senator Lieberman hopes that some of his colleagues will finally recognize hypocrisy and elitism when they see it and will vote for children’s futures instead of teacher unions.

Rachel Chaney is a Policy Fellow in Education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. She is currently a doctoral student in American history at the University of California at Davis. Copyright Pacific Research Institute. Published with Permission.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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