On Wednesday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act by a vote of 225 to 195. Last month a bipartisan coalition in Congress introduced the act reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which bolsters a burgeoning choice movement nationwide. Powerful opponents, unfortunately, don’t want students in the nation’s capital to SOAR.
Congress launched the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2004. In spite of high demand, community support, and parental satisfaction, Sen. Dick Durbin prevented the program from accepting new students in 2009. President Barack Obama acquiesced, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even rescinded new scholarships for the 2009-10 school year — despite an official U.S. Department of Education evaluation concluding that the “D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s official education research arm so far.”
Under the reauthorized program, D.C. Public Schools will continue to receive additional funds equal to the amount appropriated for Opportunity Scholarships. Elementary school children would be eligible for SOAR scholarships worth up to $8,000, and high school students would be eligible for scholarships worth up to $12,000. Those amounts are far less than half of D.C. public-school spending — which exceeds $25,000 per student, the average family income of scholarship students.
Scholarship students have a 91 percent graduation rate and three-quarters of D.C. residents support congressional expansion of the program. In spite of documented success and strong local support, the Obama Administration sought to ground the SOAR Act.
“The administration opposes the creation or expansion of private school voucher programs that are authorized by this bill,” read a statement from the White House. “The federal government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students. Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement.”
The Opportunity Scholarship Program has generated nearly $300 million in federal funding for D.C. Public Schools and charter schools since FY 2004. The “What Works Clearinghouse” in the president’s own education department validated the program’s effectiveness.
The Obama Administration’s opposition followed a March 22 letter to the House from special-interest groups including the ACLU, the National Education Association, the D.C. Chapter of the National Organization for Women, and the Washington Teachers’ Union. They repeated discredited claims that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is unnecessary, unwanted, and unsuccessful.
Such claims are “offensive” and an attempt “to rewrite history,” according to former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, who served as chairman of the council’s education committee and worked with thousands of parents to establish the scholarship program. D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown recently testified that he simply couldn’t look another working mother in the eye and tell her the only choice she had for her children was a failing school.
“The issue for me in this debate comes down to one question,” Brown said. “Can the [scholarship program] increase the number of quality educational options for low-income families in the District? I believe that the answer is yes.”
Most members of Congress with school-age children do not sacrifice them to dysfunctional and dangerous D.C. public schools. Neither do President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Duncan. Why, then, should D.C. parents sacrifice their children? That is the key question in the debate over SOAR.
Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is Pacific Research Institute’s education studies associate director and senior policy fellow.