By Dan Lips
Pamela Battle was one of the honored guests seated in First Lady Laura Bush's box at the State of the Union Address last week. She is also a symbol of President Bush's effort to establish school choice as a centerpiece of his education legacy.
Ms. Battle is the mother of two boys who are attending private school thanks to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which President Bush signed into law in 2004. In his address, President Bush voiced strong support for the principle of school choice, explaining that "giving families with children in failing schools the right to choose someplace better" is an important strategy for improving student achievement.
The pitch for school choice came as President Bush urged Congress to reauthorize his signature No Child Left Behind program. After the speech, the Department of Education unveiled the Bush Administration's reform blueprint for No Child Left Behind. It includes specific proposals to expand parental choice in education, such as new "Promise Scholarships" for low-income students in chronically underperforming public schools.
But school choice backers shouldn't get their hopes up. The prospects for adding new parental choice options to No Child Left Behind appear slim in a Congress controlled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV).
In 2001, a Republican-controlled Congress was unable to include private school choice options in the original No Child Left Behind legislation. All that remained in the compromise package were public school choice and after-school tutoring scholarships for children in low-performing public schools.
Even the implementation of these very limited options has been a disappointment. According to the Department of Education, less than 1 percent of the 3.9 million eligible students used the public school transfer option during the 2003-04 school year. In the 2004-05 school year, only 17 percent of eligible children received scholarships for after-school tutoring.
With Sen. Kennedy (D-MA) and Chairman George Miller (D-CA) holding the gavel of the committees in charge of reforming No Child Left Behind, it's unlikely that expansions of these limited school choice options -- not to mention new "Promise Scholarships" -- will be considered during any reauthorization debate in the 110th Congress.
But this doesn't mean that the White House has no important work to do to ensure that school choice remains a centerpiece of President Bush's education legacy. Just ask Ms. Battle and the parents of the other children who benefit from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program.
Signed into law in 2004, the program offers tuition scholarships worth up to $7,500 to students whose families have incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line. This year, more than 1,800 children are participating. According to the Washington Scholarship Fund, the non-profit organization which administers the program, the average income of participating families is $21,100, or 106 percent of the poverty line. In all, 6,500 students have applied for scholarships through the program over the past three year. That's about 11 percent of the eligible students in the city.
Early evidence shows how the program is working. In 2005, a study conducted by Georgetown University researchers found that a focus group of parents with children participating in the program reported that their children "became more confident, performed better academically, and possessed increased enthusiasm after joining" the opportunity scholarship program.
This year, a report will be released determining whether the students in the scholarship program are benefiting academically. Evaluations of voucher programs in other cities have shown that students exercising school choice make academic gains compared to peers who remain in public school.
While the evidence may be clear that the scholarship program is benefiting participating children, the program's future on Capitol Hill is uncertain. Funding for the program needs to be renewed by the 110th Congress. But Democratic Party leaders in Congress have been critical of the program and other school choice initiatives. And all but four Democrats in the House voted against the D.C. voucher program in 2003. The bill passed 205 to 203.
For President Bush, the debate over the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program offers the White House an opportunity to establish a presidential legacy on school choice. The White House can use its position and leverage to build support in the local community and on Capitol Hill for continuing the program that means so much to families like Ms. Battle's.
By maintaining the school voucher program in the nation's capital, President Bush can ensure that Washington, D.C., will remain a model for how school choice scholarships can benefit disadvantaged children and improve urban education. This is an education legacy worth defending.
This is the second of a two-part series of Education Notebook responding to President Bush's State of the Union Address. The first part is available here.