April 1 2011

Congressional Spotlight: An Interview with Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) on Helping DC Schoolchildren SOAR

Vicki E. Alger

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to restore and expand quality education options for schoolchildren in our nation's capital on Wednesday, March 30, 2011.

Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle spoke eloquently about the primacy of parents, not government bureaucracy, when it comes to knowing what's best for their children. She represents New York's 25th congressional district, which includes Syracuse to northeastern Rochester. She defeated incumbent Dan Maffei (D) in an upset victory and took office on January 5, 2011. Born in Auburn, New York, Representative Buerkle is the third oldest of five children and worked in her parent's grocery store, the Mohican Market.  She has had a distinguished career in nursing and law. From 1997 to 2010 Representative Buerkle served as an Assistant New York State Attorney General representing the State of New York on behalf of Upstate Medical University.  The Congresswoman is also a dedicated volunteer, serving as a Central New York Women's Bar Association pro bono attorney for Vera House, a shelter for victims of Domestic Violence. Representative Buerkle has six grown children and eleven grandchildren.  Her love for this country and her desire to give her children and grandchildren the same opportunities that she has had inspired her to run for Congress. "I believe in the greatness of the United States and that the American Dream exists," says Representative Buerkle. "As a United States Representative in Congress I want to restore government to its proper role because limited government interference is the answer for a strong America."

This conviction animates Representative Buerkle's support for H.R.471 - The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which reauthorizes the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. Congress launched the program in 2004, which awarded scholarships so low-income children could escape dangerous and dysfunctional DC public schools and attend the kinds of private schools the President and many members of Congress prefer for their own children. 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program from accepting new students in 2009President Obama acquiesced, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even rescinded scholarships for more than 200 students for the 2009-10 school year-despite an official U.S. Department of Education evaluation concluding that the "DC voucher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." Those results were later verified by the Education Department's "What Works Clearinghouse." Just this week, The Washington Post criticized the President for ignoring evidence from his own Education Department documenting the success of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program and issuing "a strongly wordedstatement of opposition. The White House of course has a right to its own opinion, as wrongheaded as we believe it to be. It doesn't have a right to make up facts."Congresswoman Buerkle voted to adopt the SOAR Act on Wednesday, which passed by a vote of 225 to 195. I had the pleasure of interviewing her after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Act.

Vicki Murray (VM): Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on the SOAR Act and Wednesday's vote, Congresswoman Buerkle. What's the most compelling reason for supporting the SOAR Act?  

Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle: "A rising tide lifts all boats." School choice means competition. Just like any free market, competition drives improvement in quality. The parents and students in our nation's capital deserve a quality education. The SOAR Act not only reauthorizes the Opportunity Scholarships and allows new students to apply; it also provides money for public charter schools and public school improvements in the District of Columbia. The act does not spend any new money; it reauthorizes and reallocates existing funding to allow the Opportunity Scholarship program to continue. It is important we take proven successes like the Opportunity Scholarships and keep them going.

VM: U.S. House passed the SOAR ACT by a vote of 225 to 195. Were you surprised by these results?  

Congresswoman Buerkle: I'm not surprised by the strong and bi-partisan majority. I'm disappointed some of my colleagues chose to vote against it, but I'm hopeful that if they continue to see more of the great success stories we heard from in the Oversight Committee [March 1, 2011, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing entitled "The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Keeping the Door Open"], they'll come around and understand how school choice can benefit all students.

VM: What do you think drove some of the opposition to the SOAR Act?  

Congresswoman Buerkle: The Oversight Committee held a subcommittee hearing, and we heard directly from DC Opportunity Scholarship parents and students [See herehere, and here].  Ms. Latasha Bennett's eldest child attended a private school because of the DC Opportunity Scholarship.  Her younger child was one of the 216 students who had their scholarship offers withdrawn when the Administration effectively ended the program in 2009. Thankfully, she found other private donations and was able to send both her children to the same school. One of my colleagues pressed Ms. Bennett for her thoughts on who stood in the way of the program and why- she was very clear - parents "would choose what's better for their kids." She speculated some public employee unions fear that they "would lose...their jobs because they'll take them and put them to the private schools and take them out of public schools."  School choice and competition would improve the number and quality of teaching positions available for talented educators.

VM: The U.S. Education Secretary and the President do not sacrifice their own children to DC Public Schools. Did they provide you and your colleagues with a reason why DC parents should sacrifice theirs?

Congresswoman Buerkle: I don't begrudge the President or Secretary Duncan any of the choices they've made with their children's education. The President had the means to send his children to a private school.  Secretary Duncan was in the enviable position of being able to choose where he was going to live based on the quality of public schools.  Along with a majority of my fellow members of Congress, offering those choices to other parents- through our support for public charter schools and for the Opportunity Scholarships- is the right thing to do.

VM: What does Wednesday's vote mean to parents outside of DC?

Congresswoman Buerkle: Many parents and families have come to mistrust government. They think powerful special interest groups control the agenda.   They think that the federal government in particular won't do what's right for their children. Yesterday's vote offers hope for the future and a sign that real change has finally come to Washington.

VM: Will Wednesday's vote help you and New York State legislators expand education opportunities at home?

Congresswoman Buerkle: I look forward to working with school choice advocates in New York and sharing with them what I have learned from examining the Opportunity Scholarship program. Perhaps more importantly, I want to take what we're doing right-and what we're doing wrong-in New York State and make sure my fellow members of Congress and the leaders in the District of Columbia learn from that as well.

VM. Thank you very much, Congresswoman Buerkle!  

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