January 12, 2010 | Commentary on D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program
Name the speaker: "The way for a young man to rise is to improve himself in every way he can." No, not Descartes. Not Benjamin Franklin. Not even Mark Twain. It was a wise young man named Ronald, who attends school on an Opportunity Scholarship in Washington.
The federally funded program allows some 1,700 children to escape the failing District of Columbia school system and attend the school of their choice. Parents love it; every year they apply in droves. So why are members of trying to kill the program, a move that would deny other children like Ronald a chance to rise?Last year lawmakers changed federal policy so that Congress now must explicitly reauthorize the Opportunity Scholarship program each year. Since lawmakers declined to act in 2009, hundreds of students have already been dropped from the program.
In many cases, that bad news came just days after the good news that they'd been accepted. Latasha Bennet explains the roller-coaster ride many parents took that week.
"When I got the letter rescinding the scholarship, I was angry. I was frustrated," she says in the documentary "Let Me Rise," produced by The Heritage . "I was so appalled that I was going to fight to the end, fight as long as I can, because [my daughter] can't fight for herself. I'm the one that has to do that."
Ironically, the children seem to have a better idea of what's at stake than our political leaders do.
"If I could talk to the politicians who are considering eliminating this program, I'd just ask them to take a step back," says Jordan, a scholarship student. She adds that our leaders should "just sort of think of what it would be like if they couldn't afford the school their child wanted to attend and if every day their child went to school they had to worry about their safety or whether or not they were actually learning."
That's a crucial point. A Heritage survey, updated last year, shows at least 44 percent of senators and 36 percent of House members have sent a child to private school. Nationwide, less than a third of families -- roughly 11 percent of students -- attend private schools.
In short, our politicians enthusiastically exercise their ability to send their kids to the schools that will be best for them. They just won't allow poor D.C. residents have the same chance.
And poor parents desperately want those scholarships. They know what a life-changing difference a good education makes.
"I can see my daughter not being on the poverty level that I've been through," says Carmen Holassie. "This Opportunity Scholarship is working and will work." Adds Adrienne Lynch: "Any parent who has a child in this program can tell you they can see the difference in their children."
So what will it take to save the program?
Virginia Walden Ford is president of D.C. Parents for School Choice. As a single mother years ago, she struggled to guide her own children through the District's school system. Now she works to help other parents.
"We need President Obama to stand up and say we need to keep this program. This is not fair," she says. "If the president of the United stands up and says 'let's keep this program,' it will be kept."
Obama recognizes the importance of a good education. That's why he sends his daughters to Sidwell Friends, a highly regarded private school and the alma mater of fellow presidential daughter Chelsea . At least two of her classmates are there on D.C. Opportunity Scholarships -- and couldn't afford to remain without the aid.
The scholarships cost federal taxpayers about $15 million, and don't divert any funding from other students in D.C. public schools. Renewing the program should be a no-brainer.
Let's hope federal policymakers act quickly -- and show they've learned their lesson.
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is President of The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in Indianapolis Star