In D.C. schools, Obama chooses unions over kids

President zeroes out funding for popular voucher program

May 20, 2012|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

Just when you thought the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program for poor, predominantly minority kids was fully protected from politics, here comes the Obama administration with another broadside.

The popular program (which falls under congressional jurisdiction) allows impoverished children in the notoriously underperforming D.C. public school system to attend area private schools with vouchers of up to $12,000. Its contentious history includes full-scale support from congressional Republicans and theGeorge W. Bush administration. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it took but a few short months for a new Obama administration to pull the plug on new applicants in 2009. The scheduled termination of the program was just another sop to anti-school-choice teachers unions from a union friendly president.

Today's politics are marked by short-term, turbulent election cycles, however. And so the 2010 midterm elections brought a new House GOP majority to Capitol Hill. Shortly thereafter, pro-voucher Speaker John Boehner was quick to include $20 million (over five years) in voucher aid as an integral part of his 2011 spending deal with a still-resistant administration.

Talk about the difference one election can make: one new House majority; one new House speaker; hundreds of poor, mostly African-American schoolchildren (again) provided the opportunity to choose quality over monopoly; and thousands of relieved, often tearful parents filled with gratitude.

This show of emotion is not surprising. The program is quite popular. Public opinion polls reflect clear majority support within the District. And there is a reason for such public support. Objective analysis from a variety of well-respected investigators (including the research arm of the Obama administration's Education Department) reflects what common sense would lead one to suspect: Voucher recipients score better on standardized reading tests and enjoy substantially higher graduation rates, as compared with their peers in the D.C. public schools.

Simply put, the program works.

Nevertheless, now comes the Obama administration with an election-year attempt to gin up its left flank by zeroing out voucher funding in its fiscal 2013 budget. The targeted beneficiaries: teachers unions and their anti-voucher allies in Congress. One especially troubling provision would prohibit students who were unsuccessful in the program's lottery from reapplying the next year. For anyone who has seen the raw emotional responses of parents to the news of their child's selection (or rejection) in one of these lotteries, this is a particularly nasty step in the wrong direction.

There are those public school advocates who oppose any form of public school choice. They view any option outside of the traditional public school setting as detrimental and in direct contradiction to the role of public education. Their answer to the many ills besetting so many of our underperforming school systems never changes: "Give 'em more money." And so we have, at every level of government.

But times are changing. Governments are stretched for cash. Taxpayers are demanding ever more accountability. The time for more money has come and gone. Dysfunctional school systems require fundamental change. Time has shown that good money after bad is not the answer.

Today, advocates of school choice come in many varieties: black and white, urban and rural, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. They are increasingly willing to take a chance — to choose "all of the above" — when it comes to the education of our most challenging students.

In the District of Columbia, one of the "above" options is to give some poor kids a shot at a private school education. It is an opportunity to punch a ticket at a place that will nurture their intellectual skills. Of course, not everyone who applies is chosen; this one program is not the answer to our considerable educational challenges. But it is a part of the answer.

Anxious D.C. parents are awaiting the president's decision. Many rightly see the voucher program as their best opportunity to escape the pull of multigenerational poverty. Let's hope the leader who so convincingly talks about compassion will find some for a group of vulnerable kids living in his own back yard.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around" (a book about national politics) and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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