June 25, 2008
By Jennifer A. Marshall
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
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.
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
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."
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
"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
Marshall is director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage
Foundation (heritage.org) and a former teacher.
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.
Jennifer A. Marshall
Director, Domestic Policy Studies
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