President Obama recently promised to continue funding the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program by allowing students currently enrolled to complete their education. This decision will prevent many students from being forced from their schools of choice, but it fails to help the thousands of DC parents who hoped to use vouchers in the future to rescue their children from poorly performing and unsafe schools.
Even more egregiously, President Obama’s promise failed to account for 216 students who received letters of acceptance into the voucher program for the upcoming school year. In April, these 216 students and their parents received letters informing them that the voucher program would be ending and that their scholarships were no longer forthcoming.
This decision has left many students without good options for the upcoming school year. Parents who had planned to send their children to safe and successful private schools now have no choice but to use the failing public schools they had hoped to avoid when they applied for vouchers. Such late notice has even closed off the few other options available to low-income parents seeking a better education for their children. Most good charter schools, for example, have already filled up.
The debate over vouchers has been highly politicized by special interest groups who hope to defeat the program in particular and educational choice in general. Rather than focusing on the best interest of the students whose futures are at stake, opponents have claimed that vouchers threaten the public education system and undermine accountability. Yet increasing numbers of DC politicians and administrators are leaving the politics behind and focusing on the children.
In a recent letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, seven members of DC’s Council supported providing vouchers to the 216 students who had been promised them earlier in the year. These seven members—a majority of the Council and a mix of Independents and Democrats—urged Duncan and Fenty not to rescind the promised vouchers. Such a move, they explained, would “deny their children the quality education they deserve.”
The council members also recognized the benefits previous voucher recipients had gained, citing a Department of Education study that showed gains in reading for voucher recipients. The support of these politicians represents a welcome step away from the tired debates that ignore children to focus on party politics.
Democrats and Independents signed their support for a program passed by a Republican Congress, a hopeful sign. Someday America’s children will be able to count on their elected representatives to act in their best interest, rather than catering to teachers’ unions or other special interest groups.
Perhaps more DC children will then be able to excel at private schools like scholarship recipient Tiffany Dunston. According to DC Children First, an advocacy group for students, Tiffany received a scholarship to attend Archbishop Carroll High School. In 2008, she graduated as valedictorian.
“I am determined to build a better life,” she said, “and want others in my community to have that chance, as well.”
That will require the support of President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and other politicians. As a first step, these leaders should fulfill the promises they made to the 216 students whose scholarships were rescinded. Then they should extend the program to provide all DC students with the opportunity to succeed. That would be a model for the long-term goal of full choice in K-12 education for all parents and students nationwide, as a matter of basic civil rights.