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January 5 2010

The Obama Administration and the DC Student Voucher Program

Vicki E. Alger

Co-authored with Evelyn B. Stacey

In his September 8 back-to-school speech, President Obama urged students to take responsibility for their actions. That is also good advice for the president himself and for his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, considering that their recent actions are hurting the prospects of low-income students.

"Every single one of you has something you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer," the president said. "I've talked about your parents' responsibility for making sure you stay on track. . .I've talked a lot about your government's responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren't working where students aren't getting the opportunities they deserve."

Duncan echoed these sentiments during a fall 2009 visit to Sacramento. At an education leadership forum, he told policymakers that he wants to get out of the current "compliance-model bureaucracy [and] into the business of what works." Further, he urged "investment in organizations that challenge the status quo." Yet at the first opportunity to do just that, the Obama administration instead sided with business-as-usual schooling, not students.

Congress has appropriated about $14 million annually for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program since its enactment in 2004. Under this program, low-income DC public school students - particularly those in failing schools - can use scholarships averaging $6,600 to attend local private schools, including many of the elite schools children of the president and members of Congress attend.

The official government evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that the reading impacts for students using scholarships for three years, the maximum period for which data are available, "are equivalent to 1.5 or two years of extra learning (14 to 19 months)." In contrast, DC Public Schools (DCPS) rank first nationally in funding and worst in student achievement. DCPS also has some of the most dangerous schools in the country.

According to one estimate based on the latest official figures, the District spends $28,000 per pupil-$5,400 more than the average scholarship student's entire annual family income. Even Secretary Duncan complained in the Washington Post that DCPS "has had more money than God for a long time, but the outcomes are still disastrous."

Yet instead of expanding the program so more children could attend high-quality private schools, the president signed legislation in March killing the program-one day after his first major address on education before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. At that time, he promised his administration "will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: it's not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works."

A few weeks later, Secretary Duncan actually revoked the Opportunity Scholarships of 216 new students, many of whom are now forced to attend what statistics from his own department suggest are some of the country's most dangerous and dysfunctional public schools.

What's more, 75 percent of District residents support the Opportunity Scholarship Program. This support from residents is overwhelming and bi-partisan, with about three out of four Democrats and Republicans each in favor of continuing it. The program's success even goes beyond student academic performance and community support. The official Department of Education evaluation concluded that the Opportunity Scholarship Program led to "increased involvement by parents because of increased involvement by private schools" to engage them.

Contrast that with DCPS, where according to Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the school culture is "driven more by politics and adult concerns than by the needs of children." According to Rhee, the leading objection to reform is that efforts are moving too quickly, but "our students have been waiting since long before 1954 for a just, challenging, and equal system of public education."

No one objects to improving public schools in the nation's capital-far from it. Such "improvement," however, must not come at the expense of students. "Education is so important that you cannot just leave it to one producer," says Per Unckel, Governor of Stockholm and former Minister of Education in Sweden, which implemented a universal K-12 student voucher system in the early 1990s. "Kids should never, ever have to stay in a school if the school is lousy. The right of the [student] is to get a good education," according to Governor Unkel. "If the public sector cannot offer it, he or she should have the right to go someplace else."

Former DCPS student and Opportunity Scholarship recipient Ronald Holassie knows this first hand. He used his scholarship to attend Archbishop Carroll High School and testified during the spring 2009 "Preserving School Choice for All" hearing in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "Public schools did not get bad over night, and they're not going to get better over night," he explained. "So why not have the Opportunity Scholarship [Program], which will give children...a high-quality education they can't receive right now?"

However genial the president's back-to-school remarks may have sounded, more talk about educational opportunity is cheap. All students deserve the chance to attend schools that work for them-including those in President Obama's own back yard.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is director of the Independent Women's Forum Women for School Choice Project and Education Studies Associate Director at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California. She is co-author with PRI's Evelyn B. Stacey of Down but Not Out in D.C.: Bi-Partisan, Bi-Cameral Efforts to Continue the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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