In contrast to his more partisan and ideological policies, President Obama has been lauded for his bipartisan work on education, in which he has a supposedly unflinching commitment to evidence-based reform — “what works.” But in his 2013 budget, the president proposes to cut one program, close to home, that demonstrably works: the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program gives poor students vouchers to attend various area private schools, helping them escape what is one of America’s worst big-city public-school systems. As President Obama faces the coming election, his budget limns his true priorities. The bloated Department of Education will grow by 3.5 percent, satisfying teachers’ unions, while the scholarship program will be eliminated, meaning fewer, and worse, opportunities for thousands of talented students.
In 2003, as part of President Bush’s wider effort to emphasize school choice as a preferred route to education reform, he signed the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program into law. Since then, the program has been paying tuition at local private schools for, each year, a couple of thousand elementary- and high-school students whose families are below 185 percent of the poverty line.
The program has been, by all accounts, a resounding success. Of the students who have taken part in it, 92 percent left public schools that had been deemed “in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring” for smaller private schools, which they and their parents overwhelmingly rate favorably. Ninety-one percent of Opportunity Scholarship recipients graduate from high school, in a city where the overall graduation rate is just 55 percent. And these benefits have come at minimal cost: The vouchers range in value from $8,000 to $12,000, compared to the $18,000 the D.C. school system spends on each public-school pupil.
Obama’s budget is not the first time Democrats, in their anti-school-choice zealotry, have attempted to kill the program: Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) eliminated the appropriation for it in an obscure funding bill in 2009, but Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senator Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) worked together to restore the program in 2011. It is one thing to see opposition to a successful school-choice reform from Democrats, like Senator Durbin, who have a history of kowtowing to teachers’ unions. It’s quite another to see the same thing from a president who has claimed a commitment to evidence-based and bipartisan reform.
It may be, in many instances, cheap political theater to deride President Obama for sending his daughters to one of Washington’s most prestigious private schools. But, in this case, he has callously chosen to deny to other Washington students an education that would cost just one-third of what he spends to send each of his daughters to Sidwell Friends per year (approximately $32,000 — just about twice the mean household income of Opportunity Scholarship recipients).