By Dan Lips
How much funding for the education of students is District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton willing to lose to prove a political point? At least $18 million, apparently.
Del. Norton is using her voice in Congress to try to end the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a federally-funded program that currently helps more than 1,900 disadvantaged kids attend private schools in the District.
This program has proven widely popular with D.C. families. Since it began in 2004, approximately 7,200 students have applied -- about four applicants per scholarship.
This strong demand for school choice isn't surprising when you consider the poor performance of the District's public schools. Despite spending nearly $15,000 per student, the D.C. school system is one of the lowest performing in the nation. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, half of all D.C. eighth graders scored "below basic" in reading. A recent study found that only 59 percent of D.C. students graduate high school.
Besides being low-performing, D.C. schools are often violent and dangerous. The Washington Post reported that, on average, there are nine violent incidents in D.C. schools during a typical day. A federal study found that the percentage of D.C. high-school students who "reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property during the previous 12 months" was 12 percent in 2005.
Facing 1 in 8 odds that their child will be threatened or injured at school, it's no wonder that so many parents are excited about the prospect of being able to choose where their children are educated. Georgetown University researchers have conducted multiple focus groups with families participating in the voucher program and report "high levels of satisfaction" expressed by parents. Better school safety has been a top reason for why families choose their child's schools, according to multiple focus groups.
After four years, D.C. leaders say the program is a success. This spring, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty testified on Capitol Hill in favor of President Bush's proposal to boost funding for the voucher program. Former Mayor (and current City Council member) Marion Barry, who has opposed school choice for decades, recently announced his support for the scholarship program in a recent Washington Post op-ed.
Unfortunately, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton remains fiercely opposed to vouchers. She was honest about her intentions: "I can tell you that the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program." As the House Appropriations Committee considers whether to fund the program, Norton appears intent on leading an effort to block the $18 million in funding for scholarships.
For D.C. taxpayers, this is a costly way to score points in the political struggle over public education. Terminating the program would pull $18 million out of the D.C. public education system and increase the burden on the school budget by sending 1,900 kids back into public schools.
For families with children in the scholarship program, it's impossible to quantify what taking these scholarships away will mean. You can hear directly from participating families themselves by visiting www.VoicesOfSchoolChoice.org. There, families explain how they are benefiting from the opportunity to choose a safe and effective private school for their children.
April Cole-Walton, whose daughter attends private school using an opportunity scholarship, said it best: "I believe that every family should have a choice about how their child is educated regardless of where we live or how much money we have … Every child should be given the opportunity to succeed."
If only Del. Norton would agree.
For more information, se: "A Nation Still At Risk: The Case for Federalism and School Choice."
Dan Lips is policy analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org .