Politics & Policy

Choice for the Children

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program gives disadvantaged children a chance at a private education.

If Marion Barry can change his mind on school vouchers, there’s hope that others can as well.

For more than a quarter century, the former D.C. mayor and current City Council member has been an outspoken opponent of school vouchers. But he recently shocked the District by writing in support of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program in an article for the Washington Post.

What changed his mind? Talking to parents and families who know that their child’s scholarship is a lifeline that has rescued them from low-performing schools.

”Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, and other guardians in my community tell me that these programs are making a difference in their children’s lives and giving them hope they have never had,” Barry wrote.

He specifically pointed to one mother, Wanda Gaddis, who told him: “The schools in D.C. were not educating my child. At first I did not have a choice, but I am so thankful that I and so many other parents did get choice with the Opportunity Scholarship Program. I can’t begin to tell you how much my child’s education has improved since starting with this program.”

I understand how Ms. Gaddis feels. In the 1990s, I was in her position. My son was struggling in D.C. public schools. Back then, we had no choice but to send him to the local public school.

One day, a caring neighbor gave me a private school scholarship for William. He enrolled in Archbishop Carroll High School, where he would go on in thrive in school. Instead of becoming another student lost in the D.C. public school system, my son earned his diploma and went on to join the Marines, where he has served in Iraq.

Unfortunately, not all families are so fortunate.

In 2003, when President Bush proposed bringing a school voucher program to Washington, D.C., many DC parents walked the halls of Congress to let lawmakers know that they were desperate to find better schools for their children. Despite strong opposition from teachers unions and other interest groups, some prominent Democrats, like former Mayor Tony Williams, former DC Council Member Kevin Chavous, and Senator Joe Lieberman, stood up in favor of the voucher program. In the end, Congress enacted the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program.

Today, that program is helping 1,900 disadvantaged children to attend private schools, funded by these scholarships. The program is changing lives. Participating children are thriving, gaining confidence in the classroom, and becoming eager to learn.

Unfortunately, this success hasn’t changed everyone’s mind. And with Congress debating whether to continue this program, some lawmakers who reflexively oppose vouchers are working to end the program and send these 1,900 children back to low-performing public schools.

But I think if people had the opportunity to actually hear from parents themselves, they’d put their ideological differences aside and understand why we need to give families the power to choose their children’s schools. Our new website offers just that opportunity, giving parents and students participating in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program a chance to make their story heard.

Listening to these parents and students — as Joe Kelly, father of four, explains how the voucher program has changed his family for the better, or students Carlos and Calvin Battle explain how happy they are in their new private schools — demonstrates how school choice offers these children an enriching academic experience. To remove these 1,900 children from their private schools would benefit no one, and would indeed hurt many.

 – Virginia Walden Ford is the Executive Director of DC Parents for School Choice, Inc.

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