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March 9, 2009

DC Students to President Obama: Save Our Scholarships

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK:
DC Students to President Obama: Save Our Scholarships

By Lindsey Burke and Virginia Walden Ford

"I told my mom not too long ago I would like to be president one day when I grow up," writes Fransoir, a 7th grader and recipient of a scholarship to attend a private school in the District of Columbia. But if Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have their way, his academic future could become another casualty in the war of educational politics.

Since 2004, thousands of children like Fransoir have had scholarships worth up to $7,500 to attend a private school of their choice as a part of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. Currently, more than 1,700 low-income children are benefiting from this opportunity. However, language in the current $410 billion spending bill in Congress (passed by the House and now pending in the Senate) would eliminate the program.

That would mean going back to D.C. public schools, a system with one of the lowest graduation rates in the country despite spending more than $14,000 per student, well above the national average. D.C. fourth and 8th graders rank last on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And while last academically, D.C. public schools ranked first in school violence, according to the Justice Department.

The prospect of losing their scholarships -- and having to return to the unsafe, underperforming public school system -- prompted students to write letters to President Obama asking him to continue to support this important program.

In her letter to President Obama, 12-year-old Sakeithia writes, "My old public school was not a very safe place. I saw a lot of things a child should not see.... I feel I missed a lot in D.C. public schools, but I am making up for it now. I love to learn and will continue this with your help by keeping the scholarship going."

Paul, age 11, wrote: "In my old public school, people screamed at the teacher, walked out [of] the school during class, hurt me, and made fun of my friends."

Adds Fransoir: "One of the many reasons why I love my school is that all my teachers make me feel like I can do anything, they take the extra time to help me when I need it. If I never would have had the scholarship I wouldn't be the person I am right now, but now I have the opportunity to accomplish what I know that I am capable of doing with the right support system."

Breanna, age 9, had this to say: "President Obama, I really like my new school because I am getting all A's and B's. I love to read. I'm in the fourth grade and read on a 5.3 reading level. I also play the clarinet in the school band."

The letters also reveal the hopes that the opportunity scholarships have unleashed in these young people. Dominique wants to become an obstetrician. Breanna, a translator. Paul, an architect. De'Andre plans to go to Morehouse College like his role model Martin Luther King, Jr. and humbly hopes to "grow up to be a good man."

The letters are a poignant reminder of exactly what's at stake.

The D.C. Opportunity Program is making a tremendous difference in the lives of hundreds of children and their families. Their experiences should ring familiar to President Obama, who himself benefited from school choice. He, along with members of Congress, should put the interests of the children -- not of unions or other political factions -- first as they consider this program's future.

"What this scholarship has meant to me is far more than can be quantified with words," says Jordan, a senior at Georgetown Day School. "Because of this scholarship, I am a better, stronger person...this autumn, I will be the first in my family to attend a university.

"By allowing this program to continue, you are offering the children of D.C. a future brighter than ever imagined."

Lindsey M. Burke is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Virginia Walden Ford is the Executive Director of D.C. Parents for School Choice and a Visiting Scholar at Heritage.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald on March 9, 2009.

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