House Democrats maliciously want to end a tremendously successful program that provides scholarships for low-income students in Washington, D.C. The report language accompanying the House version of the congressional appropriations bill that approves spending for Washington, D.C. orders “the Administration to phase out the Opportunity Scholarship Program in fiscal year 2023.” The bill also creates new burdensome requirements on participating private schools that are overly restrictive and unnecessary given the structure of the program.
Why would congressional Democrats oppose a program designed to provide educational options to D.C.’s low-income children? The Washington Post editorial board, a longtime supporter of the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), recently asked a similar question in an editorial entitled, “Why are unions and Democrats so opposed to giving poor children a choice in schooling?”
Teachers’ unions, which annually donate millions to congressional Democrats’ campaigns, and their allies regularly urge Congress to eliminate the OSP, spreading false allegations about the program’s history and its impact on OSP families.
The OSP is part of a three-sector—traditional public, charter, and OSP—federal initiative to support education in the District of Columbia. Former Democratic D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and former Democratic City Councilman Kevin P. Chavous worked with the White House and Congress to craft the initiative in 2003. The compelling movie, Miss Virginia, depicts the tireless advocacy of D.C. parents, led by the courageous Virginia Walden Ford, that ultimately resulted in the 2004 passage of the District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act. City leaders and low-income parents ensured that D.C. children from low-income families can receive scholarships to attend the private school of their choice.
This program has proven to be successful by any objective measure. Studies have shown that OSP participants have lower chronic tardiness and higher graduation rates. Over the 17 years of the OSP, nearly 11,000 scholarships have been awarded. The program serves families with an average income of less than $24,000 per year, and 92% of students are African American or Hispanic. In the 2019-2020 school year, 97% of OSP 12th graders graduated from high school and 91% were accepted into a two-or-four year college or university. The program is understandably popular among scholarship families, with 96% of parents expressing satisfaction with their child’s school and 95% of parents reporting they are happy with their child’s academic progress.
The Washington Post points out the hypocrisy of the program’s opponents.
“It is striking how some foes of the scholarship program — and here we think of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) — see no inconsistency in their opposition to this program and their support for the $40 million DC Tuition Assistance Grant program, which provides funds for college. Like the opportunity scholarship program, DC TAG can be applied to private schools in the metropolitan area, including religious schools, but unlike the opportunity scholarship program, wealthy families (with incomes up to $515,000) are eligible. Where is the logic in supporting a tuition assistance program available to affluent D.C. families and not one that only benefits very low-income D.C. families? To be sure, the quality of the city’s public schools has improved since the program was enacted — perhaps in part due to competition from school choice — but that doesn’t mean that poor parents deserve no choice in where their children go to school.”
School choice opponents regularly and falsely claim that scholarship programs “take” money from the public school system. Under the federal three-sector funding approach, traditional, charter, and the OSP all receive additional funding. Educating the OSP students costs significantly less than the other sectors, ultimately saving taxpayers. While the D.C. traditional public school system spends $30,115 per student, participating private schools receive scholarships of up to $9,401 for elementary and middle school students, and $14,102 for high school students.
Ideally, the Senate will fully fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and remove the harmful language added by House Democrats. In light of the extreme challenges faced by D.C. children, Congress should ensure that this tremendously successful scholarship program can continue serving current and new D.C. children.