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