Politics & Policy

A Washington Education

A small school-choice program has thrived in the District of Columbia for the last four years, helping thousands of low-income children escape from failing public schools and enroll in successful private ones. This afternoon, however, its future is in jeopardy as a House appropriations subcommittee takes up the question of whether the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should survive beyond the 2008-09 academic year.

The program exists only because of a strange-bedfellow coalition comprising the Bush administration, congressional Republicans, and black Democrats in Washington. In addition to conservatives who believe market reforms can improve education, supporters of the $18-million, federally funded plan include Washington mayor Adrian Fenty, former mayor Anthony Williams, and even former-mayor-turned-city-councilman Marion Barry. A decade ago, Fenty, Williams, and Barry frowned on school vouchers. Since then, they’ve come to see how choice can serve as an essential part of urban school reform, and they’ve converted.

The people who are most satisfied with the program, however, aren’t politicians but the parents whose children benefit from it. Surveys reveal their enthusiasm for what many see as an educational lifeline. Participants must be poor to qualify, with family incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Whereas many Americans can take advantage of a rough form of school choice — they can move into areas with functional schools — these D.C. residents are by and large trapped into accepting the schools that their local government assigns them. This year, almost 1,900 kids were able to opt into something better with vouchers worth up to $7,500. About 60 percent of them ultimately attended Catholic schools, even though most of them are not Catholic. The Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the program, says that it receives about four or five applications for every slot it can fill.

Despite this high demand, Democrats in Congress may kill the program. Their ringleader is D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, an ideological hostage of teachers’ unions and a sworn enemy of school choice. On Capitol Hill, she is a powerful voice for her city, even when she’s on the opposite side of many of its elected officials and her own constituents. She recently insulted the families that receive these scholarship, calling them “befuddled,” according to the Washington Post — a newspaper whose liberal editorial page has strongly supported vouchers for D.C. (Last week, the Post accused Norton of behaving “disingenuously” and said her stance toward school choice “has hit a new low.”) A standard argument against vouchers — that they rob money from public schools — is a dubious claim to begin with, but it simply doesn’t apply to the situation in D.C. From the beginning, the scholarship program was established as one part of a “three-sector approach” that also provides additional funding for the city’s charter schools and public schools. If Congress eliminates the school-choice element from the equation, the extra money for the other schools vanishes as well.

Monday, the Department of Education released a new evaluation of the school-choice program, based upon its first 19 months of operation. Researchers found indications that, at least among certain sub-groups of students, the scholarships may be boosting academic achievement. The overall benefits of school choice are perhaps less pronounced than what advocates would like to see, but both friends and foes of vouchers must remember that the data come from an exceedingly short timeframe. It could take several years before it is possible to draw firm conclusions about school choice’s effectiveness in Washington. A Department of Education argues that “achievement trends are moving in the right direction.” They certainly aren’t moving in the wrong direction: When students switch schools, they often suffer from “backsliding” and their test scores fall, at least temporarily. This appears not to have happened in D.C.

Congress shouldn’t backslide either — it should let the Opportunity Scholarship Program live, for the sake of the poor families who want it most.

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