Boehner's SOAR Saves School Choice

After years of fighting for a shot at a quality education, low-income children in D.C. have regained their futures.  Thanks in no small part to House Speaker John Boehner, the battle to restore and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was won.  But it wasn’t easy.

One would tend to think that a program proven time and again to benefit children would have champions on both sides of the aisle.  That in a city like Washington, D.C., where the public schools rank 51st in the nation in terms of academic achievement, a successful alternative to such failure would be heralded by everyone.  But the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) had more than its fair share of detractors.

Why?  It provided scholarships of $7,500 to low-income children to attend a private school of their choice—less than half the nearly $18,000 spent per pupil in the D.C. public school system.  And it has led to increases in reading achievement for participating students.  Importantly, students who received a voucher and used it to attend private school had a 91% graduation rate.  Graduation rates in D.C. public schools stand at just 55%.

Yet this low-cost, successful alternative, which has also increased parental satisfaction and student safety, was put on life support more than two years ago by Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin.  He placed poison-pill language in an omnibus spending bill in early 2009 prohibiting any new students from receiving scholarships unless the D.C. OSP was fully reauthorized by Congress.

And while the last Congress worked to phase out the scholarships, President Obama stood idly by.  His Department of Education even rescinded the scholarships of 216 children who had been awarded vouchers.  So much for hope for low-income children.

So for the last two years, D.C. families have been fighting for their educational lives.  These parents know that being forced to send their children back to the underperforming and unsafe D.C. public school system could spell the end of their successful academic careers and dim their future life prospects.  Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a longtime advocate of school choice, points out that without the D.C. OSP, “86% of the students would be reassigned to schools that do not meet ‘adequate yearly progress’ goals in reading and math.”

But after two years of fighting, their perseverance paid off.  On Jan. 26, 2011, Speaker Boehner introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which is the only piece of legislation the speaker plans to sponsor this year.  It promptly passed the House, but was facing an uphill battle in the Senate and a likely veto from the President.

But even as budget negotiations were being hotly debated on the Hill, Boehner didn’t forget that the futures of 1,100 children were hanging in the balance.

The SOAR Act was included in its entirety in the long-term Continuing Resolution.  The program will now be authorized for a full five years, ensuring low-income students in D.C. have access to a quality education and removing any uncertainty those students already in the program felt.  Its inclusion is a monumental victory for D.C. families.

In the bigger picture, it all comes back to this question:  Who’s in charge of a child’s education?  Since 2004, thousands of D.C. families have been empowered through the scholarship program to choose a school that best meets their children’s needs—a power that has changed the life trajectory of many of these students.  While the Obama administration continues to give lip service to parental involvement—while simultaneously expanding the scope of the federal role in education—his support for school choice in D.C. and across the country has been less than passionate.

While the families in D.C. haven’t been able to count on the support of the President with regard to the voucher program, they can rest easy for the next five years knowing that their scholarships are secure.  The SOAR Act’s inclusion in the long-term Continuing Resolution authorizes the voucher program through 2016.

The D.C. OSP has been a resounding success since 2004, as verified through gold-standard evaluations conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.  Watching the successes of voucher students for the next five years will provide even more proof that school choice works.

And the growing school choice movement making its way through many states nationwide gets a much-needed victory.