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Posted at 7:49 PM ET, 12/ 4/2009

The man who can save D.C.'s educational lifeline

By editors

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.

By editors  | December 4, 2009; 7:49 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., schools  
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The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program should end. The program does not work and is bad public policy. In a referendum, the voters of the District of Columbia have opposed vouchers. The Congress should not impose a program onto the people of the District of Columbia. The Washington Post editorial board has shown itself to be biased and has repeatedly overrated overstated the program and ignored the fact District residents do not support it. The Washington Post and Senator Joseph Lieberman do not represent the views of the people of the District of Columbia.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | December 5, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Surely the teachers' union would be supportive of such a successful program?

Posted by: spamsux1 | December 5, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

This is an excellent piece. Mayor Williams, Councilman Chavous, and the many D.C. leaders--including parents--who have fought to save this program have been at this battle longer than some political campaigns. It's interesting that this effort to save the DC voucher program has gotten more local folks involved in an effort than anything else in recent memory, and it's a shame that President Obama and Mr. Serrano and Mr. Durbin won't see the benefits of the program and let new kids in.

In terms of the person who previously commented (Mr. Brannum), he's not only inaccurate in his characterization of the voucher program's effectiveness, but he's made opposing vouchers a personal vendetta. He has gone so far as to show up and scare little kids at rallies with a bullhorn and has screamed at parents at a Capitol Hill event. This is his right but I think he needs desperately to get a life--one that doesn't include frightening little children who only want to go to better schools.

Posted by: schoolchoicesupporter | December 5, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

DC residents and voters overwhelmingly support this program, and the continuation of it. To claim otherwise is not at all accurate.

A statistically representative voter survey was administered this past July in DC. Braun Research conducted the poll. I did the analysis. A nice spectrum of District and national organizations co-released the survey.

There is clear support for the program and its expansion.

What were some of our findings?

- 74% of DC voters support D.C. Opportunity Scholarships

- supporters outnumber the opposition, more than 3 to 1

- 68% oppose the position to end the program; 27% support this position

- there is high support across parties (74% Dems, 79% GOP, 72% Ind)

- nearly 4 out of 5 voters, with family incomes below $50K, support D.C. Opportunity Scholarships

- 56% believe the current number of granted scholarships is too low

Full report here:


When will Senator Durbin, Representative Serrano, and Secretary Duncan respect the public will (and evidence)?


- Paul DiPerna

Posted by: pd_wpa21 | December 6, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

When will Senator Durbin, Representative Serrano, and Secretary Duncan respect the public will (and evidence)?


- Paul DiPerna
Why should they?
Chancellor Rhee doesn't respect public will.

Posted by: edlharris | December 6, 2009 9:22 PM | Report abuse

The DC OSP is a wonderful, successful program that has made an incredible difference in the lives of so many children. I talk to the parents and hear such joy and happiness in their voices because their children are doing so well in the schools they are attending. I think it is a shame that this program is in danger. I am angry with those who don't take the time to look into the eyes of the children and see how taking away this program would hurt them and their futures. I am angry with those who think that politics is more important than the lives of our children. And I am saddened that members of Congress and the current Administration will not stand up for the children and for their parents who want only what every American should have… the best education possible. This program has given the children a chance to take a journey of excellence in schools that their parents chose. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would not fight for the children; especially those who had opportunities that helped them achieve their dreams. I ache for the families and the children who will have their lives changed in a negative way if the DC OSP is not reauthorized and for the children who will never be able to participate in this extraordinary program. I beg those who hold the power, specifically President Obama, Senator Durbin and Representative Serrano to look into their hearts and do the right thing. The children who are currently in the program and those children who would be recipients of the DC OSP in the future deserve every opportunity to be in schools that are in their very best interest. Virginia Walden Ford, DC Parent

Posted by: gfwalden | December 6, 2009 9:53 PM | Report abuse

The one thing the kids of DC need is an education so as to be able to lift themselves out of the squalor of that city.

The democrats in congress don't ever want this to happen. If it does they will lose their base when the downtrodden become educated. After all and educated minority cannot be promised the world without delivery.

Posted by: frankn1 | December 7, 2009 7:21 AM | Report abuse

The argument for federal sponsorship of a postsecondary education program like DC TAG is unique. Postsecondary education is the provision of state government--the District has no state so the feds serve as a surrogate. Elementary/Secondary education principally is the provision of local government. I would expect is either of you to understand such facts because DC TAG was developed in spite of rather than because of either of you--I know because I was a principal in the White House at the time.

If DC wasn't a voucher program, then DC not people in Utah, Nevada, and California should pay for it.

Posted by: 4GUDGOV | December 7, 2009 7:55 AM | Report abuse

Thanx for writing this & posting it! This issue hasn't been getting the attention it deserves, it seems...

Posted by: realghostbuster | December 7, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

The upcoming decision that, make no mistake, will be made by Secretary Duncan and President Obama as to whether this program will continue could have a tremendous long-term impact. Their support for the bold education reform represented by the DC OSP would go a long way toward setting a tone nationally that says, "in education--children come first." As parents themselves, their failure to allow parents with children in DC to have the same opportunity to access a high quality educational environment would be a sad commentary. I voted for President Obama with a belief that he would make sound, intelligent decisions that would sometimes draw political fire. We'll soon see if he meets my expectations.

Posted by: ChadAldis | December 7, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I wonder about the reading comprehension skills of the author of this post. I clicked on the link which idicates that the success of the program has been shown and my reading comprehension skills tell me that the program has not been a success. To say that participants are 4 months ahead of thier non-participating peers in reading is, actually, not very indicative of success, when you consider just how far behind the curve the non- program participants are! No difference was evinced on math scores. Having a daughter educated at an elite private school in DC, it strains the imagination to conjecture that a transfer from a low performing DC public school would produce noteworthy results without extensive remediation. I am not sure that participating private schools are endeavoring to take on the kind of remediation that would be neccessary to bring incoming participants up to par with thier PEERS AT THE NEW PRIVATE SCHOOL. Reading comprehension skills are critical-for all, including readers of the author's post.

Posted by: felicerobinson1 | December 7, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

This programs "DOES" work. I have two children who have participated in the program. One will graduate from College in May 2010 with a bachelor degree in Business Administration and the other in May 2011 with a bachelor degree in Computer Information System!!!!

Posted by: AnneSteele698 | December 7, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

It is long past time for President Obama to stop being a hypocrite on this issue. To benefit from school choice in the way that he has but deny it to others who need it now by simply choosing to be silent is simply wrong. Speak up, Mr. President!

Posted by: dial | December 7, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Failure of urban education in the U.S. is a catastrophe. It is no less than the contemporary counterpart of slavery. DC Scholarship Program has proven succesful. Senator Diane Fienstein, an original co-sponsor has expressed her support for it's continuation and expansion in her recent email reply to me. Could she discuss this issue with her senate colleagues, Secretary Duncan and President Obama?

Posted by: explorer11 | December 7, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

This program 'DOES' work i have three children who has participated in this program. One will graduate from College in May 2010 with a Bachelor Degree in Business Administration, and my son will graduate from College with a Bachelor Degree in Computer Information System!!!

Posted by: AnneSteele698 | December 7, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I am a Parent Leader for the renewal of the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). My daughter is and has been a receipent of the OSP for five years. The program has been very vital to us. Our family is being hit two fold, being disabled and learning that the SS receipents will not get a cost of living increase for two years will make it even more difficult for our family finanically. Without the scholarship I would not be able to afford to send her to a school that suits her needs. Since being in the scholarship program her math skills have improved tremendously, DC public schools were failing her in that area. She has also tested Post High School in the annual standardized testing. I contribute these accomplishments to the higher level of education she has been receiving since leaving the DC Public School System. I certainly hope and am faithful that Pres. Obama will step up and do what is right for all children of low income families and reauthorize the program not only for current receipents but for new students as well. This should not even be an issue when it comes to the education of our children. Should we low income families be penalized via our childrens' education Pres. Obama? you used scholarships to attend school. I think not. Your daughters attend one of the schools that accept the scholarship. I should be the only one to decide what my child needs educationally and the future of her education should not be tied up in a bunch of political psychobabble. Pres. Obama, Sec. Ducan, Sen. Durbin and Rep. Serrano you all should be ashamed of yourselves engaging the views that you have in deciding the education of so many children. I'm sure you send you child/children to quailty shcools, why take that choice away from us. We are standing strong!!!

Posted by: sheilajackson8bunnybop | December 7, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

This is obviously a successful program that shouldn't be cut. Parents should be able to decide where to send their kids to school -- much like the "privilege" that the President and many members of Congress enjoy. The only difference here is that these families can't afford the opportunity to seek a better educational environment that what is available to them.

The only "imposition" I see here is that potentially of the new administration on the families in need -- not the establishment of the program itself.

Posted by: LetThemChoose | December 7, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Without advocating for one side or the other on this issue, why do we as a nation continue to accept poor results from our public schools? Whereas, this program will help a few students, the economic survival of our nation depends on a highly educated populous. Providing a quality education to a small number of students is short sighted and will not serve our country well.

Our government officials (local, state, national) need to muster the moral and political will to demand more from teachers and administrators. All schools should be good schools or they should be out of business. Any other business with outcomes as dismal as our public education system would be out of business. Corrective action is needed now!

Posted by: just1opinion | December 7, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

"The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program should end."

"The program does not work and is bad public policy."

Yes it does, and you fail to argue what qualifies it as bad public policy.

"In a referendum, the voters of the District of Columbia have opposed vouchers."

We overwhelmingly support it.

"The Congress should not impose a program onto the people of the District of Columbia."

Imposed? With the consent of the mayor, the council, and the parents? The current mayor, despite being an ally of the president who opposes the program, continues to support it perhaps at his long-term political risk. The schools chancellor also supports it. This is by all definitions not imposed. I know the families who benefit from it don't feel imposed upon.

"The Washington Post editorial board has shown itself to be biased and has repeatedly overrated overstated the program and ignored the fact District residents do not support it."

Oh, sure, the Post always hates the Democratic position.

"The Washington Post and Senator Joseph Lieberman do not represent the views of the people of the District of Columbia."

But you do. Check.

I've read your work at the Examiner. I think you have a long way to go to drum up the populist support that you need. I just can't get over how you keep saying the program "doesn't work." All these students and families whose lives were turned around. They can't be ignored.

Posted by: edgydc | December 7, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

"Providing a quality education to a small number of students is short sighted and will not serve our country well."

Well, our first priority as a city are the students of our city. Our first priorities as families are the opportunities of own children.

Posted by: edgydc | December 7, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

As previously stated; however, ignored by editorial board of The Washington Post and proponents of District private school vouchers, is the fact District voters have VOTED in a public referendum against vouchers in the District.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | December 7, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Yes, you keep stating that without citing which referendum you are referring to.

Posted by: edgydc | December 7, 2009 10:53 PM | Report abuse

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