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July 28, 2009

Strong Support for School Choice in Washington, D.C.

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK:
Strong Support for School Choice in Washington, D.C.

By Dan Lips and Lindsey Burke

Seven members of the D.C. City Council recently wrote a letter to Secretary Arne Duncan and Mayor Adrian Fenty asking them to overturn their decision to withdraw Opportunity Scholarships from 216 children. "We believe we simply cannot turn our backs on these families because doing so will deny their children the quality education they deserve," wrote a majority of the Council. "We strongly urge you to stand with us in supporting these children and continuing the District's Opportunity Scholarship program."

Judging by a new poll, it is clear these Council Members were also speaking on behalf of a majority the District. A new poll conducted by Braun Research, Inc. on behalf of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice finds strong support for school choice among registered voters in the District. Here are some of the key findings from the poll:

  • Education -- not the economy -- is the number one concern for D.C. voters: 29 percent of residents said K-12 education and schools are their top priority.
  • 79 percent of parents of school-age children oppose eliminating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, and nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of residents have a favorable view of the program. In fact, a majority of D.C. residents (56 percent) would like to see the program expanded to include all eligible applicants.
  • D.C. residents are unhappy with the condition of the District's public school system. 76 percent of respondents rated the D.C. public school system as either "poor" or "fair." The poll also revealed that 47 percent of voters would prefer to send their child to a private school.
  • Respondents felt that education spending should be higher, but at the same time grossly underestimated per-pupil spending in the District. More than half of voters believe that spending on public education is too low. However, while most respondents (70 percent) believe that per-pupil spending in D.C. is less than $12,000, actual per-pupil expenditures in the District for the 2006-07 school year exceeded $15,500.
  • District residents give solid marks to local leaders. For instance, Mayor Fenty received a 63 percent job approval rating, the D.C. City Council earned a 65 percent job approval rating, and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee received a 62 percent job approval rating.

Despite the growing support for school choice in the District, lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to threaten the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a spending package that included funding for the District government. Although this funding is sufficient to provide Opportunity Scholarships for another school year, the bill unfortunately includes language preventing new students from entering the program and getting scholarships. Amendments geared to let new students into the program were defeated, including one that would have made the siblings of current scholarship recipients eligible.

At this point, one wonders: Why are opponents continuing to try to kill this program? It is not because there is a lack of local support in the District -- the recent City Council letter and polling data easily dispel that argument. Surely, it is not because the program is not working -- the latest academic evaluation found that scholarship students had made "statistically significant" academic improvement compared to the control group.

The only rational explanation involves politics. Powerful special interest groups like the National Education Association continue to oppose this and any other program that undermines their control of public education funding in America.

President Obama, Secretary Duncan, Congressional leaders, and D.C. Mayor Fenty have a choice to make: Will they listen to the special interest groups? Or will they listen to the D.C. City Council and District residents who believe that poor kids deserve a quality education too?

216 kids are waiting for an answer.

Dan Lips is Senior Policy Analyst and Lindsey Burke is Domestic Policy Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.

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