December 14 2009
Vicki E. Alger
Memo to anyone who still believes Santa Claus resides in our nation's capitol. Back in 1986 President Ronald Reagan told small business leaders that "government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it." Yesterday, government once again lived down to its reputation.
The U.S. House passed a $447 billion omnibus spending bill on Thursday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) claims all that spending will help restore long-term prosperity. In reality, the bill is a windfall for bureaucracies that leaves thousands of the District's most disadvantaged students out in the cold. In a move that would make Ebenezer Scrooge blush, the House buried five provisions in the 2,400+ page conference report (pp. 439-442) that effectively extinguish the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and with it the aspirations of students trapped in one of the county's most expensive, dysfunctional, and dangerous public schooling systems.
By piling on regulations and limiting funding for current program participants, the House has all but guaranteed that within just a few years none of the D.C.'s most disadvantaged public schoolchildren will be able to attend the same private schools the president and many members of Congress prefer for their children. It's no mystery why. Based on official District and Education Department reports:
•· Less than two out of 10 D.C. public schools students are functionally literate in reading and math, and around half drop out (p. 3) in spite of spending $28,000 per pupil;
•· In contrast, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship students perform two years ahead of their public-school peers in reading and about the same in math-for a quarter of the expense since tuition at the average Opportunity Scholarship school is $6,600 (pp. xxi and 15); and
•· Even more striking, when those scholarship students left their public schools and started the program they were scoring at the bottom third in reading and math (p. 10).
Some leading education economists consider such dismal public school performance "the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession" (p. 6) that costs the U.S. GDP as much as $2.3 trillion (p. 5), which works out to about $7,500 per person. Even Education Secretary Arne Duncan admits that the "D.C. [public school system] has had more money than God for a long time, but the outcomes are still disastrous." So it's unclear how waiting around for D.C. public schools to improve and sacrificing yet another generation of low-income students will amount to "long-term and broadly shared prosperity," as Speaker Pelosi claims.
The Senate could vote on the spending bill as early as this weekend. Hopefully, common sense--not to mention common decency--will prevail as it did back in 2003 when Congress first enacted the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. "I do not believe that money alone is going to solve the problem," explained Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who cast the deciding vote in favor of the program. "Ultimately this issue is not about ideology or political correctness. It is about providing a new opportunity for good education, which is the key to success." (p. 3)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein's not alone. Against tremendous odds, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) fulfilled their promise to hold "The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: Preserving School Choice for All" hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last May. "There are some powerful forces allied against this program," Sen. Lieberman declared (p. 13). "We happen to have the facts on our side. We also have justice on our side."