Any doubts about congressional leaders' priorities on education were erased Monday with the release of the new $450 billion omnibus bill. It includes a provision to eliminate the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which is currently helping low-income children attend private schools in the nation's capital.
If adopted, the measure will basically ensure that 1,700 of the poorest children in D.C. are forced to leave their private schools and transfer back into the District's low-performing and often dangerous public schools. Angered scholarship parents may wonder why Congress is moving so quickly to end this $14 million program just as the federal government is showering money on Wall Street and the auto companies.
But anyone who followed the recent debate over the so-called stimulus package isn't surprised. That plan included $100 billion in new funding for the Department of Education -- a one-time increase that's more than the department currently spends in a year. Buried in the bill's thousands of pages was a rule that not a dollar could be used to give children scholarships to attend private school.
The message was clear: Special-interest groups, not parents, still come first in the education debate. For years, blocking school choice and ending the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has been a priority for the teachers' unions and their advocates on Capitol Hill. Now, 1,700 low-income children may become casualties in that ongoing political war.
Consider what's at stake for these children. The District has one of the most troubled public-school systems in the country. Despite the system's spending more than $14,000 each year per student, barely half of all students ever graduate high school. One out of every eight D.C. students reported being assaulted or injured with a deadly weapon during a recent school year. That's equal to the percentage of D.C. eighth-graders who scored "proficient" in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Since 2004, the Opportunity Scholarship program has helped thousands of the District's poorest children escape these public schools.
Academic researchers evaluating the program have found that parents of voucher students are more satisfied with their children's schools. Initial evidence suggests that children who were offered vouchers are performing better academically than their peers who were not, though the results so far aren't statistically significant.
More satisfied parents and test scores that appear to be rising -- not bad for a government program. Why, then, are congressional leaders so intent on terminating this relatively tiny expenditure?
A likely reason is the muscle that special-interest groups like the National education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, flex in American politics today. And that should concern parents and students across the country, not just poor families in D.C.
The harsh truth is that American education urgently needs the kind of reform that $100 billion just won't buy. Millions of children continue to pass through our nation's public schools without receiving an education that prepares them to succeed and take advantage of the opportunities of the 21st-century economy.
Whether we deliver on the promise that all children have equal access to a quality education depends on whether elected officials have the courage to stand up to entrenched interest groups. This isn't about spending more money. This is about setting high standards and holding students and schools accountable for results. It's about changing the way we train, hire, and compensate our teachers.
Most of all, it's about transferring power from government bureaucracy to parents and school leaders, who are better positioned to determine how children can best learn. Parents should be free to choose the educational environment that works best for their children, and school leaders should be empowered to pick the curriculum and personnel that get the job done.
Unfortunately, instead of embracing the change American education needs, the congressional majority appears intent on continuing to support the failed status quo. That's bad news for all American children. But it's especially bad news for 1,700 poor kids in Washington, D.C.
Dan Lips is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Robert C. Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
First Appeared on National Review Online