April 23, 2009
By Lindsey Burke and Dan Lips
President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and most
members of Congress have never known the sense of desperation that
LaTasha Bennett feels.
Bennett is one of hundreds of Washington, D.C., parents who
recently opened a letter from the U.S. Department of Education with
devastating news: Her child was no longer eligible to receive a
private-school scholarship for the upcoming school year. This sent
Bennett and other parents scrambling to find their children spots
in good public schools -- a challenge in a city where few students
read at grade level and barely half graduate from high school.
President and Mrs. Obama faced the same problem when they moved
to the District in January, but they were able to afford a private
school for their daughters. And for Secretary Duncan and his wife,
finding a good school was a top concern when deciding where to live
in the D.C. area. They wound up choosing Arlington, Va., a
community with good public schools. Duncan recently told
Science magazine: "My family has given up so much
so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn't want to try
to save the country's children and our educational system and
jeopardize my own children's education."
Members of Congress also face the issue of finding a good school
for their children. The Heritage Foundation recently surveyed
Congress to find out where members' children went to school. The
survey found that 38 percent had at one time enrolled
a child in private school. Senators (44 percent) were slightly more
likely to have chosen a private school for their children than
representatives (36 percent).
Nationally, only 11 percent of all students attend private
school. Of course, paying private-school tuition -- after paying
taxes to support the public schools -- is a lot easier to do on the
six-figure salary of a member of Congress.
Incidentally, the survey also revealed that members of Congress
are nearly twice as likely (20 percent) as the general public to
have attended a private high school. President
Obama, Secretary Duncan, and Vice President Joe Biden all graduated
from private high schools.
Of course, no one should begrudge our elected officials their
having attended good schools, or their choosing good schools for
their children. However, President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and
many members of Congress apparently fail to recognize that other
parents -- regardless of their backgrounds -- would also like to be
able to choose their children's schools.
Many families -- particularly those headed by low-income parents
-- can't afford private-school tuition or the cost of housing in a
community with good public schools. All too often, they're forced
to send their children to the nearest public school, regardless of
In 2004, Congress created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship
program to give thousands of disadvantaged families in the District
the power to choose their children's schools. After five years, the
program is a tremendous success, and it is wildly popular. At least
four students have applied for each available scholarship. Parents
are more satisfied with the safety and quality of their children's
schools. And there is new evidence that participating students are
benefiting academically: A federal evaluation found that students
who received scholarships now have higher reading test scores than
their peers who stayed in public school. Scholarship students who
have been in the program the longest have made nearly two years'
more progress in reading than their peers.
Since the administration has pledged to fund what works, one
might assume it would support expanding a program that has boosted
disadvantaged kids' test scores. Instead the administration has
stood by as liberals on Capitol Hill have worked to end the program
-- inserting language into a recent spending bill that schedules it
to end in 2010.
President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and members of Congress
should imagine themselves in the shoes of less fortunate D.C.
parents. Would they want a scholarship if they had no other choice
but to enroll their kids in the District's low-performing schools?
The answer is obvious.
District parents should take heart that the injustice of denying
families school choice is being noticed in the world of elite
opinion. The Washington Post has published a series
of pointed editorials exposing the effort to kill the program. Monday's editorial highlighted the hypocrisy
of politicians denying poor families the same options they value:
"We don't think it's too much to expect our leaders to treat their
constituents with the same fairness and regard they demand for
their own families."
In this respect, the D.C. voucher debate presents President
Obama with a great opportunity to match his words with action.
Before his inauguration, he published an open letter to his
daughters explaining why he had sought the presidency. Obama wrote:
"In the end, girls, that's why I ran for President: because of what
I want for you and for every child in this nation. I want all our
children to go to schools worthy of their potential -- schools that
challenge them, inspire them, and instill in them a sense of wonder
about the world around them. I want them to have the chance to go
to college -- even if their parents aren't rich."
President Obama now has the chance to live up to that promise by
fighting to give low-income families the power of school choice
that politicians take for granted.
Lindsey Burke is a research assistant in domestic policy
and Dan Lips
is a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in National Review Online
President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and most members of Congress have never known the sense of desperation that LaTasha Bennett feels.
Education Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Will Skillman Fellow in Education
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