The man who can save D.C.'s educational lifeline
By Anthony A. Williams and Kevin P. Chavous,
Despite the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program’s five-year record of success in helping children from low-income D.C. families attend the best schools they have ever known, President Obama, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) are threatening to end it. Officially, the three have coalesced around a position that would allow current participants to remain in the program but not let in any new ones, including 216 who received acceptance letters in the spring.
Plain and simple, the position of Obama, Durbin and Serrano is to let the program die. Continued funding for only current participants would deny entry to their siblings, as well as to those children of low-income parents stuck in or slated to go to the worst-performing D.C. schools. It would harm the congressionally mandated evaluation of the program by gradually cutting the number of participating children, and it would require the District to absorb the cost of accommodating children who would otherwise be in the program.
Since their creation in 2004, the Opportunity Scholarships have been an educational lifeline for more than 3,300 children. Part of a “three-sector strategy” conceived in partnership with the federal government, in which new federal dollars also went to D.C. public schools and public charter schools, the initiative has become the most studied program reviewed by the Education Department. Four consecutive studies from Georgetown University and the University of Arkansas have not only found overwhelming satisfaction among participating parents but that, through the process of choosing schools, these low-income parents have become strong educational consumers. The Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences has shown that participating children are making good academic progress. In fact, the program is one of the few studied by the institute to actually demonstrate success.
In his Nov. 28 Local Opinions commentary, Serrano said that the Opportunity Scholarships were “imposed” on the city by Republicans. He also said that he doesn’t want to be a second mayor, supporting harmful, intrusive social programs — such as the scholarship program. Neither assertion holds water. As elected leaders from the District who painstakingly negotiated the terms of the three-sector strategy, including the Opportunity Scholarships, it is amusing to hear that it was “foisted” on us. It certainly wasn’t foisted on the hundreds of parents who waited in long lines and made great sacrifices for the prospect of having their children attend good schools.
Do these parents think the scholarship program was an undemocratic social rider imposed on the city? We think not. And we are not alone. Current D.C. leaders, including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and a majority of D.C. Council, support allowing new children to enter the program. Serrano and his colleagues in Congress would be acting like second mayors if they killed it.
Serrano also suggested that the District should fund the program on its own. Like the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, which is federally funded and allows D.C. residents to attend public universities around the country at in-state tuition costs, the three-sector initiative was born from the special relationship between the District and Congress. That relationship has led to unprecedented and unique federal funding for all aspects of education in the District. It makes no sense to run the Opportunity Scholarships with only city money while D.C. public and public charter schools enjoy such federal support.
Within the next few weeks, we will know whether the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships will survive. Education Secretary Arne Duncan espouses the “current students only” position, but President Obama has not spoken publicly on the issue. It is time for him to do so.
As a youth, Barack Obama benefited from educational scholarships. After college, he worked as a community organizer on behalf of low-income families in Chicago. Community organizer Obama would support those parents seeking better educational opportunities for their children. Community organizer Obama would embrace a program like the Opportunity Scholarships, which give the children of low-income parents a chance at the American dream — without having to wait five years for the local school reform plan to work.
“Saving” this program means reauthorization, allowing new children to participate, and increasing the scholarship amounts to account for inflation. The president has said that he will support whatever works in education, regardless of ideology. We challenge him to live up to those words. We challenge him to meet some of the parents and applicants who want to be part of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. More than anything, we challenge him to do what we know community organizer Barack Obama would have done 20 years ago: Stand on the side of these families.
Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, was D.C. mayor from 1999 to 2007. Kevin P. Chavous, a former Democratic member of the D.C. Council, is the author of “Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education” and is a distinguished fellow with the Center for Education Reform.
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