D.C. School Children Take Back Seat to Politics

For years, Republicans in Congress have supported increased local control of education, while advocating for expanded options that allow parents to choose the best educational environment for their child.  In 2004, the Republican-controlled Congress focused on the educational challenges in the District of Columbia to assist low income students who were trapped in low performing schools and to prove that expanded school choice would lead to academic success.

But only last week, Democrats ended the successful D.C. school voucher system in an action applauded by the White House.

Every year, the District of Columbia spends more than $15,000 to educate a single student in the public school system.  Since that is more than $5,000 above the national average, you would expect to see outstanding results.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.   Recent data show that 69% of 4th graders in D.C. public schools are reading below basic levels.  Students in D.C. Public Schools ranked last in the Nation in both SAT and ACT scores.  About 42 percent of D.C. students drop out of school.

As a result of statistics like this, Congress wisely decided to provide families trapped in D.C.’s broken educational system with the option of transferring their children to a better performing private school.  Today, more than 1,700 low income students are taking advantage of that opportunity through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  

Despite the fact that 45% of Senators and 37% of the members in the House of Representatives choose to send their children to private schools (almost four times the rate of the general population), the Democrats in the United States Senate put politics before the well-being of D.C. students and failed to approve my amendment that would allow D.C. students to continue to attend private schools.

I respect the decision of Member of Congress, and President Obama, to send their children to a private school, but why should the choice to send children to private schools be the right of only a privileged senator’s family or those who make a lot of money?   Why should families with an average income under $23,000 per year, like those currently participating in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, be denied that option?

Recently, prominent local and national Democrat officials split with Hill Democrats on this issue and have come out publicly on the need to continue the program in D.C. schools.

President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Chancellor of Public Schools Michelle Rhee all agree that students currently enrolled in private schools through the Opportunity Scholarship Program should be able to complete their education at those schools.

Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s spokesman, said last week that President Obama will not allow the DC school choice program to expire as the 2009 Appropriations bill directs it to and promised to work with Congress to ensure that the “disruption doesn’t take place.”

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Education Secretary recently said:  “I don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they’re happy and safe and satisfied and learning,” Duncan told said. “I think those kids need to stay in their school.”

And the Washington Times recently splashed the headline “Fenty pushes for school vouchers,” across their front page in a story detailing D.C. Mayor Fenty’s split with Democrats on the Hill as they worked to kill the program.  

In fact, Chancellor Rhee even went so far as to say, “I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent’s ability to make a choice for their child. Ever.” Clearly, local officials who work with these children every day see the benefit of the program and the affect it is having on their lives.  
Ensuring that students currently in the program can continue to attend private schools is the first step, but Congress must do more.  What about the other families in D.C. who want to take advantage of the program?  What about the siblings of students currently in the program?  All students in D.C. deserve to have access to educational options, including private schools.

Congress must ensure that low income families in D.C. have the opportunity to choose the best educational environment for their children.  We must not only continue to allow the students who are currently enrolled in private schools through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to continue their education, but we must continue the program to allow more low income students trapped in underperforming schools to benefit.  Parents and children of this nation are depending on it. 


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