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By Dan Lips and Lindsey Burke
The families of the 1,900 children participating in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program breathed a sigh of relief when the Congressional Appropriations Committee approved funding to provide scholarships for another school year.
The Appropriations Committee's move came a week after a subcommittee chaired by Rep. Jose Serrano voted last week to include $14 million in funding for scholarships for the budget. Although this is less than the $18 million requested by the Bush administration and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, it keeps the program alive for another year.
Before yesterday's full Appropriations Committee mark-up, word circulated on Capitol Hill that Democratic lawmakers were considering an amendment to strip out the funding for the voucher program. In response, families with children in the scholarship program sent letters to Capitol Hill asking Representatives not to kill the program.
Fortunately, no such amendment was offered and the funding for the program remains, for now, in the federal budget. But parents and other school choice supporters fear that those intent on ending the scholarship program haven't given up yet.
The ongoing debate over the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program forces members to decide who comes first in education--children in need or special interest groups. No children will benefit if Congress kills the voucher program. Since 2004, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has helped disadvantaged children escape the District's low-performing and often violent public schools to attend a private school of their parents' choice. This year, more than 1,900 children are attending private schools thanks to the program. The average income of these families was barely above the federal poverty line: $22,736 for a family of four.
By all accounts, the scholarship program is working. Mandated evaluations of the scholarship program conducted by Georgetown University and the Department of Education have found that parents report higher levels of satisfaction with their children's schools and the safety of the learning environment.
Moreover, a recent evaluation of participating students' test scores found that students who received vouchers realized higher academic achievement than students who were not awarded a voucher. Although researchers cautioned that the test score gains were not statistically significant, any progress is encouraging--especially since the evaluation reviewed only two years worth of testing data. (For an in-depth analysis of the testing evaluation, see this Heritage Foundation web memo by Dr. Shanea Watkins.)
If Congress takes away their opportunity scholarships, most of these 1,900 children will be forced to re-enroll into the Districts' struggling public school system, which former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams once dubbed a "slow-moving train wreck." On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Fourth and Eighth Grade students from the District scored lower on reading and math tests than any state in the country. The District also has a lower high school graduation rate than any other state.
Beyond the low performance in the classroom, D.C. schools are often violent or dangerous. A federal government study found that 12 percent of D.C. students were threatened or injured by a weapon on school property during a recent school year--well above the national average. According to the Washington Post, Anacostia High School alone saw 61 violent offenses, including three sexual assaults and one instance of the use of a deadly weapon.
Ending the program would harm--not help--D.C.'s struggling public schools. Since Congress funds the voucher program, the D.C. education budget would remain the same if the scholarships rescinded, forcing 1,900 kids to transfer back into the public school system. Ironically, the transfer of these students would have the same effect that opponents of vouchers often threaten (inaccurately) will occur with expanded school choice: the siphoning away of resources from other public school students.
Unfortunately, this additional burden placed on the public school system is a consequence of which many legislators will never feel the effects. Strained resources, academic underperformance, and compromised safety only concern those whose children are obligated to attend these schools. Members of Congress voting on whether to continue the scholarship program should ask a simple question: Would they send their own children to one of the District's the low-performing public schools?
For most, the answer is surely no. Since 2000, the Heritage Foundation has surveyed Members of Congress to determine how many Senators and Representatives have practiced school choice by sending their own children to private school. In 2007, the updated survey found that 37 percent of Representatives and 45 percent of Senators in Congress had sent a child to private school--well above the national average. Yet many of these same lawmakers have a long history of voting to deny low-income parents the same power.
Low-income children should have the same opportunities as the wealthy offspring of Members of Congress. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill should demonstrate that they support equal opportunity in education by putting children first and ensuring that these 1,900 hopeful children continue to receive the excellent education options that they so desperately need.
Dan Lips is Senior Policy Analyst and Lindsey Burke is a Domestic Policy Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation.