Boehner's SOAR Act Scores Big Win in House for D.C.'s Children


Boehner's SOAR Act Scores Big Win in House for D.C.'s Children

Mar 31, 2011 2 min read
Lindsey M. Burke, PhD

Director, Center for Education Policy

Lindsey Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues.

Placing their bets on the failed status quo, the White House yesterday issued a preemptive statement opposing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  It moved one step closer to revival today, however, when the House passed the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act by a vote of 225 to 195.

Introduced by Speaker John Boehner—and likely the only piece of legislation he will sponsor this year—the SOAR Act would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which provides scholarships of up to $7,500 for low-income children living in the nation’s capital to attend a school of their choice.

The White House release noted that the President’s FY 2012 budget increases funding to improve D.C. public schools and stated that "the Administration opposes targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools rather than creating access to great public schools for every child.”

President Obama is once again betting that spending more money on a broken system will improve education in the district.  He might as well be placing precious taxpayer resources on a roulette wheel—the odds for a positive outcome are higher, frankly.

For decades, D.C. public schools have been the worst in the nation.  The system ranks 51st in the nation, and is plagued by school violence.  Only 14% of eighth-graders are proficient in reading.  Just 55% of the students in D.C. public schools graduate.  During the 2007-08 school year, 3,500 calls were placed from D.C. public schools to the Metropolitan Police Department.  More than 900 of those calls were to report school violence such as assault.

But since 2004, low-income children have had the chance to escape the underperforming and unsafe D.C. public schools and attend a private school of their choice.  Thanks to the D.C. OSP, more than 3,300 children have received vouchers—and a chance at a brighter future.

And the children have taken that opportunity and soared.  Congressionally mandated evaluations of the D.C. OSP, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, revealed that scholarship students were making gains in reading achievement compared with their public school peers.  The gains in academic attainment, however, have been most astounding.

While just more than half of all students in D.C. public schools graduate, 91% of students who received a voucher and used it to attend private school graduated.

And to top it all off, these gains come at a fraction of what is spent in the underperforming public school system.  At $7,500, the vouchers are less than half the more than $18,000 spent per pupil in D.C. public schools.

But unfortunately, partisan politics rarely favors the rational.

Buried in a 2009 omnibus spending bill was language inserted by Sen. Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.) prohibiting any new students from receiving scholarships unless the program was fully authorized by Congress.  The makeup of the last Congress essentially ensured the D.C. OSP would be left to die a slow death.  With no new students allowed to receive scholarships, the program has slowly atrophied, clinging to life for the past year and a half.

Those who oppose providing school choice to low-income children in D.C. are many of the same policy makers beholden to education unions.  President Obama's allegiance to these special-interest groups has anchored his staunch opposition to school choice.  This despite the fact that he sends his children to private school—and was himself the recipient of a private scholarship as a child.

While the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was one of the first casualties of the Obama administration education agenda, its restoration has been one of Boehner's top priorities.

For low-income children living in the nation's capital, who cannot wait another four—or 40—years for the D.C. public schools to improve, today's move in the House to restore and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program must certainly rekindle hope.

And although President Obama has already come down strongly in opposition to the scholarships, betting that this time the one-size-fits-all approach will work, he should remember that the House always wins.

And today, the House won what will likely be one of the most significant education victories of the year for D.C.'s children.

Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Human Events