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Dueling Voices on School Choice

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The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has survived the first round of its congressional appropriations gauntlet. But its fate after the full committee has its say remains unclear.

Up for grabs is the educational future of 1,900 low-income children who attend safe and effective schools thanks to the scholarship program. It's a dismally familiar story: powerful voices putting the public school lobby before the needs of children the system has failed.

Parent organizer Virginia Walden Ford has spent years buoying the hopes of families discouraged by years trapped in an unresponsive school system. "Parents have to know that they have the right to use their voices," she explains. Now these families are speaking out on a new Web site called VoicesOfSchoolChoice.org. "We can no longer tell parents to wait until the public education system fixes itself. We've got to give them options to send their children somewhere else."

"What would you want for your child?" Ms. Ford asks those plotting the demise of the scholarship program. "You want the absolute best education you can find for your own child. Well, so do the families that are not being served in traditional public education."

To listen to the students and families in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is to realize just how badly they had been served in public schools.

Ayesha McKinney is just thankful for simple things -- like clean bathrooms for her daughters. "There's no reason that children should have to be in an unclean, unsafe environment, because it's very difficult for them to learn." Not surprisingly, a recent evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program suggests that parents' most pressing initial motivation to seek alternatives to DC public schools was safety.

Once in a decent environment, new dreams and talents emerge. Maritza White's 9-year-old son Michael now talks about becoming an astronaut, and "he doesn't have to worry about coming home with a bloody lip," like he did from his last school.

Wendy Cunningham chose Georgetown Day School because it offered arts, music and theater. "I've always had a very, very strong passion for art," her daughter Jordan explains. Since the D.C. public schools had removed art from the curriculum, she settled for doodling on worksheets during class. Now she has all kinds of art resources -- charcoals, pastels and acrylic paints -- as well as access to classes at the Corcoran.

"I've come a long way from drawing in class," says Jordan. "I have an art studio with lots of supplies and willing adults to help me cultivate my talent."

Pamela Battle wanted a school that would challenge her academically gifted sons: "When you give a child a different environment, a different opportunity, they act different. They want more for themselves when they can see that it's a possibility they can get more. My kids are talking about going to college."

Her fourth-grade son Calvin noticed that he was doing some of the same work his cousin was doing in seventh-grade in D.C. public schools. His 15-year-old brother Carlos counts his blessings that he's not back at his neighborhood public high school. "I'd probably have to think more about protecting myself than learning."

If policymakers take the scholarships away, Carlos says, they'd be "taking a lot of the kids' dreams away of becoming what they are: politicians, governors, even president."

The scholarship program has broadened the horizons of students, their families, and now they want others to be able to share in the hope as well. "To see your children anticipate things that would enrich their lives and make them better people in general, that's the thing I'm happy about," says Joe Kelly, who has four children in the program. "I wish this program could spread across the country."

"It's been a beautiful experience for the entire family," says April Cole-Walton. "Every parent should have a choice to be able to say 'this is where I want my child to be educated,' regardless of where we live, how much money we have. Every child should be given the opportunity to be able to succeed."

"All those who oppose us, I think they should see the faces of the children," says Virginia Walden Ford. Policymakers who do will have a hard time avoiding the conclusion reached by former D.C. council member Kevin Chavous: "If you focus on what's best for children, it is absolutely impossible not to support school choice."

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and a former teacher.

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