June 13 2008
Eleanor Holmes Norton recently reported that Washington, D.C., parents were "completely befuddled" by the news that their children may soon lose the scholarships they've been using to attend private school. The families have good reason to be befuddled. After all, Delegate Norton is their representative and yet she is working to destroy a program that has helped 1,900 children from some of the poorest families in the District.
Congress created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2004, which for the first time provides federal money for vouchers for K-12 school. It makes sense that Congress would launch such a program in the nation's capital: Congress has special authority and influence in the federal city, and Washington, D.C., boosts some of the country's worst public schools. In 2007, D.C.'s fourth- and eighth-grade students scored lower than kids from any other state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national standard test used to measure how well our education system is working. D.C. also has the highest dropout rate and lowest graduation rate in the country: according to one estimate, less than 6 in 10 D.C. students will graduate from high school.
Liberal policymakers tend to use these dismal statistics to argue that we need to give schools more resources. Yet it's tough to make the case that lack of funding is the problem in Washington, D.C.: The District spends $14,400 for every child in public school, which is more than any other state in the country (besides New Jersey).
These facts - the terrible performance of D.C. public schools and the already sky-high spending - led policymakers from both sides of the aisle to agree that something else needed to be tried. President Bush and Congress, with the support of former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, created this program to help students from families with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line attend private school by making them eligible for scholarships worth up to $7,500.
This school year about $12 million were used to fund scholarships for more than 1,900 kids. Those students, who came from families with an average income of less than $23,000, enrolled in 54 different private schools in the District.
Testimony from these families has bolstered support for the program among unlikely sources. Former D.C. mayor and current Democratic councilman Marion Berry, for example, wrote an editorial in the Washington Post last month which explained his support for the program, which he acknowledged would surprise many: "Moms, dads, aunts, uncles and other guardians in my community tell me that these programs are making a difference in their children's lives and giving them hope they have never had." He cited an example of a parent who described how the opportunity to attend a private school had transformed that child's education and life prospects. (To listen for yourself about how this program is helping D.C. families, visit www.VoicesOfSchoolChoice.org for a collection of parent and student testimonials.) Councilman Barry also noted how he had exercised school choice with his own son, and felt that the rest of D.C. parents deserve that same opportunities.
Many other policymakers fail to connect their own experience in making choices for their families with the desires of parents in the nation's capital. A 2007 survey of members of Congress found that 37 percent of House members and 45 percent of Senators sent their children to private school. How many of these members are now going to vote to end this program that helps poor families in D.C. select schools for their children?
Even Delegate Norton seems conscious of the problems the program's termination would cause D.C. families. She claims to want to "protect the children" who are "innocent victims" during this process. Yet it is hard to know in what form protection could come. The five-year pilot program is set to expire next year unless Congress chooses to reauthorize or continue funding it.
If the program expires, most of the 1,900 students will have to return to their local public school. They'll lose the friendships they made at their private school. They'll have to start in a new educational environment, which the statistics suggest won't give them much hope for receiving a quality education. It also means that the public-school system will have more students to teach, more crowded classrooms and larger class sizes - all the things that public-education advocates say make the job of teaching more difficult. One quarter of D.C.'s public-school students attend charter schools and many more compete to do so. Many of the displaced scholarship students will now be competing with the rest of the public-school peers for the limited spots in those charter schools.
Who wins by ending the scholarship program? Teachers unions and other liberal interest groups may call this a sort of victory, but the clear losers will be D.C. parents and students.