D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in Critical Condition
By Lindsey Burke
Today's Washington Post editorial page draws attention to the plight of the embattled D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is now in critical condition due to language contained in the omnibus bill. The 2010 spending bill effectively kills the successful program by prohibiting any new students from receiving scholarships. The Post writes that contrary to being a compromise as some lawmakers claim, the OSP language tucked away in the omnibus bill is in fact a death sentence:
"IT IS DISTRESSINGLY clear that congressional leaders never really meant it when they said there would be a fair hearing to determine the future of the District's federally funded school voucher program. How else to explain language tucked away in the mammoth omnibus spending bill that would effectively kill the Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program?"
"Contrary to claims of this being a compromise, the measure is really slow death for a program that provides $7,500 annually to low-income students to attend private schools. The number of students participating in the program has already shrunk from more than 1,700 to 1,319, and the nonprofit that administers the scholarships has said that it may have to pull out because the conditions would be untenable. It's also possible that some schools that now enroll voucher students could be forced to shut down."
Despite strong support locally for the scholarships, many in Congress have continued to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of District families. The Post continues:
"Key lawmakers in the appropriation process have been, at best, disingenuous about their intentions, thus placing the program's advocates in their current no-win situation. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) made encouraging comments about allowing new students but, despite his clout as majority whip, did nothing to make that happen. Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) said that he didn't want to usurp local control, even as the mayor, the schools chancellor and a majority of the D.C. Council lobbied for the acceptance of new students."
In a letter to members of Congress, Joe Robert, and longtime advocate for children and chairman of the board at the Washington Scholarship Fund, calls Representative Serrano to task. Responding to a letter Serrano had written in November in opposition to the OSP, Robert writes:
"...you claim that the DC school voucher program was 'imposed by Congress'. This is patently false and you know it. The DC voucher legislation was conceived, supported and aggressively fought for by a Democratic mayor, a Democratic school board president, and a Democratic chair of the DC City Council's Education Committee, as well as a larger population sick to death of seeing African-American and low-income kids utterly defeated year after year by a broken education system.
"...Shame on you. Shame on all public officials who would rather relegate low-income children to continued cycles of poverty and illiteracy than take on the forces that benefit from the status quo of a broken education system. All you need to do is listen to the local education community and continue a successful program that is already in place."
While families will continue to fight for school choice in the Nation's Capital, the omnibus language sends a distressing signal about the future of the Opportunity Scholarships. More than 3,000 low-income children have had their lives changed thanks to the OSP, and are now experiencing the benefits of an effective education. Juan Williams, a political analyst for Fox News and National Public Radio, talks passionately about the negative impact shutting down school choice in D.C. will have on the lives of children:
"...when I see the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program being taken away from kids, I think...if that was me, I could never have become a writer; I could never have become a voice, I could never have exercised the kind of political influence I treasure...it just has so many repercussions. And yet, there are people that would just say... 'You know what? We're taking that away from these kids... and it's only a few kids.' But those are real people that you're hurting, those are real lives that could be changed by education. And somehow you are so cold-hearted that you think, 'You know what, those kids don't matter.' And I think that puts you on the wrong side of history."
Juan Williams hits the nail on the head. These are real lives. These are real children who are being adversely affected by the decisions of members of Congress. Decisions that are in many cases, hypocritical. More than 40 percent of members of Congress have a one point sent a child to private school. The President sends his children to private school. The Secretary of Education bought a home in Virginia so his children would not have to attend D.C. public schools. Those in Washington who have the power to save the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program clearly value school choice for their own families. It's time they afford the same opportunity to receive a safe and effective education to all families.
Lindsey Burke is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
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