February 26, 2009
By Dan Lips and Robert C. Enlow
Any doubts about congressional leaders' priorities on education
were erased Monday with the release of the new $450 billion omnibus
bill. It includes a provision to eliminate the D.C. Opportunity
Scholarship program, which is currently helping low-income children
attend private schools in the nation's capital.
If adopted, the measure will basically ensure that 1,700 of the
poorest children in D.C. are forced to leave their private schools
and transfer back into the District's low-performing and often
dangerous public schools. Angered scholarship parents may wonder
why Congress is moving so quickly to end this $14 million program
just as the federal government is showering money on Wall Street
and the auto companies.
But anyone who followed the recent debate over the so-called
stimulus package isn't surprised. That plan included $100 billion
in new funding for the Department of Education -- a one-time
increase that's more than the department currently spends in a
year. Buried in the bill's thousands of pages was a rule that not a
dollar could be used to give children scholarships to attend
The message was clear: Special-interest groups, not parents,
still come first in the education debate. For years, blocking
school choice and ending the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program
has been a priority for the teachers' unions and their advocates on
Capitol Hill. Now, 1,700 low-income children may become casualties
in that ongoing political war.
Consider what's at stake for these children. The District has
one of the most troubled public-school systems in the country.
Despite the system's spending more than $14,000 each year per
student, barely half of all students ever graduate high school. One
out of every eight D.C. students reported being assaulted or
injured with a deadly weapon during a recent school year. That's
equal to the percentage of D.C. eighth-graders who scored
"proficient" in reading on the National Assessment of Educational
Since 2004, the Opportunity Scholarship program has helped
thousands of the District's poorest children escape these public
Academic researchers evaluating the program have found that
parents of voucher students are more satisfied with their
children's schools. Initial evidence suggests that children who
were offered vouchers are performing better academically than their
peers who were not, though the results so far aren't statistically
More satisfied parents and test scores that appear to be rising
-- not bad for a government program. Why, then, are congressional
leaders so intent on terminating this relatively tiny
A likely reason is the muscle that special-interest groups like
the National education Association, the nation's largest teachers'
union, flex in American politics today. And that should concern
parents and students across the country, not just poor families in
The harsh truth is that American education urgently needs the
kind of reform that $100 billion just won't buy. Millions of
children continue to pass through our nation's public schools
without receiving an education that prepares them to succeed and
take advantage of the opportunities of the 21st-century
Whether we deliver on the promise that all children have equal
access to a quality education depends on whether elected officials
have the courage to stand up to entrenched interest groups. This
isn't about spending more money. This is about setting high
standards and holding students and schools accountable for results.
It's about changing the way we train, hire, and compensate our
Most of all, it's about transferring power from government
bureaucracy to parents and school leaders, who are better
positioned to determine how children can best learn. Parents should
be free to choose the educational environment that works best for
their children, and school leaders should be empowered to pick the
curriculum and personnel that get the job done.
Unfortunately, instead of embracing the change American
education needs, the congressional majority appears intent on
continuing to support the failed status quo. That's bad news for
all American children. But it's especially bad news for 1,700 poor
kids in Washington, D.C.
Dan Lips is
a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Robert C.
Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for
First Appeared on National Review Online
Any doubts about congressional leaders’ priorities on education were erased Monday with the release of the new $450 billion omnibus bill. It includes a provision to eliminate the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which is currently helping low-income children attend private schools in the nation’s capital.
Senior Policy Analyst
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Robert C. Enlow
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