December 11 2008

D.C. Parents Lose on Schools With Obama Win

Carrie L. Lukas

President-elect Barack Obama won a decisive nation-wide victory this election, but nowhere was it more overwhelming than in Washington D.C.  Obama bested his rival by collecting 93 percent of votes cast in the nation's capital.

When Obama was declared the winner a few hours after polls closed, the streets of Washington D.C. erupted in celebration, with honking horns, applauding crowds, and even fireworks. 

Yet, at least 1,900 D.C. residents might have cut their celebration short if they had considered what an Obama presidency likely means for the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  This program was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2004.  It provides low income families with a scholarship - more commonly called a "voucher" - to be used to enroll their children in a local school of their choice.

For many families, this program has been a lifeline.  D.C. public schools are notoriously bad. In 2007, D.C.'s fourth- and eighth-grade students scored lower than kids from any of the 50 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national standardized test.

D.C. has one of the highest dropout rates and lowest graduation rates in the country, which should hardly come as a surprise since the schools are often violent and chaotic, discouraging even good students from continuing their education.    

The federally-funded vouchers give parents the opportunity to take their children out of that environment, and place them in a new school suited to their needs.  As one parent explained in an interview last year, "You see the changes that it makes in your child's life.  &hellipto look in my daughter's eyes and see how happy she is and that she's learning."  Her story is echoed by many others who see their children's potential unleashed in their new school. 

Yet, in spite of the program's popularity and success, it's been a struggle to keep the program funded due to anemic Congressional support.  Ironically, it's Democrats, who claim to be champions of the under-privileged, who have been the most eager to destroy the program.
They do so not out of concerns for the budget-the program costs only about $12 million per year, hardly a blip in the federal budget-but out of ideological hostility to the concept of an education marketplace that gives parents more options than their local public school. 
D.C.'s own representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has led the charge to abolish the program, even as she described the Washington, D.C., parents as "completely befuddled" by the news that their children may soon lose their scholarships.

These families will probably be similarly surprised to find that Obama-whom most have seen as their champion if not potential savior-also opposes the program.  In the final presidential debate, he explained that he opposes "spending public money for private school vouchers" and wants to focus on "improving our public schools, not throwing our hands up and walking away from them."

But D.C. parents might note that President-elect Obama has "walked away" from the D.C. public school system, at least when it comes to his own daughters.   In deciding to send his children to the prestigious private school, Sidwell Friends, he follows in the footsteps of President Bill Clinton and wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton. The Clintons also opposed expanding school choice for D.C. residence while exercising choice for their daughter, Chelsea. 

No one begrudges the Obamas their right to give their daughters the best education possible.  Yet, don't the rest of Washington, D.C. families deserve at least some of the same control over their children's education that the Obama's enjoy?

No system can give all families the ability to pay the steep tuition costs at the city's most prestigious schools, but scholarship worth $7,000, like those given by the current program, are enough to give parents numerous options. 

The fate of the D.C. Scholarship Opportunity Program-and in large measure the fate of the 1,900 students who currently depend on those scholarships-will be decided next year.  Let's hope that D.C. parents take time out from celebrating Obama's historic election and start focusing on getting him to change his mind about a program that's so important to their children. 

Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy at the Independent Women's Forum and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.

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