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Posted at 5:33 PM ET, 05/13/2009

Vouchers and D.C.: What a Good School Can Do

By Vince Rinehart

By Bruce B. Stewart

In 2003, two influential men of disparate political perspectives — D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and President George W. Bush — united on the goal of giving educational choice to low-income children in the District through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. They understood that young boys and girls, by quirk of birthplace, race, income or address, should not be trapped in schools that don’t serve their needs. For those who were willing to reach up, they were willing to reach out.

Five years later, some lawmakers are ready to rescind this lifeline for some very deserving District families. Are we letting partisanship interfere with our children’s futures and the success of our country?

Choice and competition are fundamental threads in our nation’s fabric. In the marketplace, in religion, in the election of our public officials, and in a host of other decisions and actions, excellence and satisfaction derive in large part from the ability of individuals to make choices that best meet their needs.

The power and quality of the American educational system, too, resides in the opportunities provided by a diverse array of options.

I initially witnessed the impact of choice during my first full-time teaching job. It was in a public school in Greensboro, N.C., just after the sit-ins at the now-historic Woolworth’s lunch counter. As a teacher and ninth-grade guidance counselor, an important part of my work was with a dozen or so young African American students who were the first of their race to enter Walter Hines Page High School.

These students and their families recognized that Page High would provide them with many opportunities. Sadly, capturing those opportunities required unparalleled courage and conviction — and led them through great personal pain and sacrifice. That experience inspired in me a strong determination to do all that I could to see that every young American, regardless of background, received a fair chance at the best education possible. Not only was that access important, but I soon realized there needed to be a commitment to diversity from the community as a whole.

Now I am the head of Sidwell Friends School, an independent school in the District where 38.4 percent of the students are young people of color and nearly one-quarter of all students receive financial aid averaging two-thirds of the cost of the school’s tuition. Recently, two of our students came to the school as a result of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, and three came through the Signature Scholarship initiative. They have all thrived at Sidwell Friends, taking full advantage of the school’s varied and rigorous programs. While I felt we would proffer great service to them, there was no doubt in my mind that they, in turn, would significantly enrich our school community.

How America cultivates its human capacity will undoubtedly shape our country’s economic viability. As McKinsey and Co. noted in its April 2009 report “The Economic Impact of the Education Gap in America’s Schools,” racial, economic and regional variances in education across our country “impose on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.”

We need to act now to close those gaps and to provide the opportunity for all children to learn at a school that best meets their needs. Their future — and ours — depends upon America empowering families by supporting their access to excellence in an educational environment of their active choice.

This should not be allowed to become a partisan issue; it is a social justice imperative.

This commentary was adapted from the writer’s testimony on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program today before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

By Vince Rinehart  | May 13, 2009; 5:33 PM ET
Categories:  schools, vouchers  
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Let's also recall one argument against public schools at the time of the "voucher" debate was that there is no legal guarantee for the government to provide free public education. thus the republicans and the strong right wing used DC as a Puppet in its anti-public education agenda. Vouchers in DC was as much an act of political cowardice and conniving as anything else. NCLB was yet another vehicle.

The issue is not vouchers. The issue is the state of public education. Sidwell could care less about getting 2 or 3 voucher students a year and affording everyone a quality education. The issue is how do we fix public education in America?

The crime is many see the reform of public education as a business/economic opportunity versus a commitment to being part of the solution. no one is being true to this aspect. Frankly, the greed of the American way is going to destroy the public school system. Using DCPS as an example, nothing being proffered is a tangible solution. Yet, we have monumental teacher contract proposals, record numbers of Charter schools and private operators all with varying approaches. Yet, the results are still pitiful.

All these debates do is direct the issue from the core problem. the kids are not learning and why? it's not because Sidwell, St. Albans, Carroll or whoever offer them better instruction or opportunities. The ones that use the voucher to get in those schools and are doing fine were apparently learning quite well in DCPS.

At some point we have to talk about environment, standards, and support structure. I'm quite sure when you compare successful and none successful groups you'll see the disparities. So folks let's be honest and real in this debate. if we care about these kids learning, it's a bounty of challenges we must overcome. We address these challenges and the resouces necessary to overcome them. We must reallocate resources to address those needs, or we need to invest more funds in those respective areas.

Posted by: oknow1 | May 14, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

"The issue is not vouchers. The issue is the state of public education."

For the families not being served, the issue is being served --- in time for their child. These are real people. We should all talk to them. Bruce Stewart has.

"The crime is many see the reform of public education as a business/economic opportunity versus a commitment to being part of the solution."

Crime? People are looking for opportunity where there was none. Few Catholic schools, for instance, offer an impressive business model, but many are considered by families to serve their children better than the failing schools they're coming from.

"The ones that use the voucher to get in those schools and are doing fine were apparently learning quite well in DCPS."

This is absolutely untrue and there are data and impressive testimony from families against such an assertion.

Posted by: edgydc | May 14, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

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