February 23, 2010 | Commentary on Education, Parental Choice in Education

The Unabashed Dismantling of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” declared Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently in his I Have A Dream speech. “ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

For low-income minority families in the nation’s capital, who are being systematically denied educational opportunity, those words likely resonate as profoundly today as they did in 1963. Dr. King would certainly be appalled to see how poor African-American and Hispanic children are relegated to unsafe and under-performing schools as the chance at a bright educational future slips through their fingers.

As the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program goes, so go the hopes of thousands of families — families who stand in disbelief that this president, who is a role model to so many of these same children, would fail to support a program that works for them. 

Parents are justifiably angry that their children will soon be forced to return to D.C. public schools. During the 2007–2008 school year, more than 900 incidents of violent crime were reported to the Metropolitan Police Department, making DCPS one of the most dangerous school districts in the country. Children can’t learn in an environment in which they feel threatened.

While D.C. schools lead in violence, they rank among the lowest in academic performance. More than 60 percent of fourth-graders cannot read at a basic level.

Fifty years ago, African Americans fought to enroll their children in public schools that would give their children an equal chance for a quality education. Boys and girls stood in the doorways of previously all-white schools that didn’t want them, on the threshold of opportunity.

But today’s schools are not the same schools they fought to get into. Too many of today’s schools are failing African American and Hispanic students. In the 1950s, politicians stood at the door to keep African American students out. Now, they are standing at the door to keep them in.

But when the D.C. OSP was created in 2004, parents saw a lifeline for their children. And as a result, scholarship students report feeling safer and are making tremendous academic gains. According to a federally mandated evaluation, the use of an Opportunity Scholarship resulted in the equivalent of 3.7 months in additional learning for students. Moreover, these $7,500 scholarships, which make it possible for students to attend a private school, are half the cost of the $15,000 per pupil price-tag for a year in a D.C. public school.

Nevertheless, slowly but surely, the OSP is being phased-out. Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) noted recently at a press conference that 86 percent of students will be forced to return to failing schools. Sadly, the president who ran on “hope and change” seems beholden to the teachers’ unions who so staunchly oppose school choice. Obama is beholden to the status quo.

The president is phasing out the scholarships (his FY2011 budget drastically slashes program funding) while sending his own children to one of the most prestigious private schools in D.C. (Sidwell Friends). And the members of Congress who will approve the president’s budget denying school choice keep their own children conspicuously absent from D.C. public schools. Forty-four percent of senators in the 111th Congress have at one point sent a child to private school.

The D.C. public schools fail low-income minority students at an unacceptable rate; the Opportunity Scholarships work. Academic achievement has risen, parents are satisfied, and more than 70 percent of D.C. residents support the program’s continuation. For an administration that promised to do “what works” in education, the elimination of the OSP is a brazen detour from that plan.

In a press conference last month, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) said “if Dr. King were here today, he’d be fighting his heart out for the OSP.” During February — Black History Month — Lieberman says he’s looking for legislative opportunities to save the D.C. OSP.

Many have said that educational opportunity is the civil rights struggle of our time. Preserving school choice in the nation’s capital will provide quality education for District children and optimism for families across the country who yearn to have their educational futures determined not by their zip codes but by their drive to succeed.


Lindsey Burke
is a researcher in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. Virginia Walden Ford is the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice.

About the Author

Lindsey Burke Will Skillman Fellow in Education
Domestic Policy Studies

First appeared in National Review Online