Politics & Policy

Voices for Choice

D.C.'s school choice movement isn't going down without a fight.

Kevin Chavous is an African American and former Democratic city council member from Washington, D.C. He says he’s an Obama supporter, but he is distinctly unhappy with the president. Elections may have consequences, but no one expected that the White House would be so brazenly petty as to allow poor minority children in the nation’s worst school district to become the victims of political score-settling.

That’s exactly what happened when the Obama administration killed off the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program several months ago. Of course, if the White House thought that it could pay off the powerful teachers’ unions, and that the 750 kids in the program would be powerless to fight back, they made a serious miscalculation. Though Afghanistan, the economy, health care, and many other issues have been sucking up all the national-media oxygen, the school-choice efforts on the ground and in D.C. and in the halls of the Congress have been incessant and unyielding since the program was abruptly terminated.

Chavous has made some strange friends in his quest to bring school choice back to D.C. On this particular evening, he’s gripping the podium at the Heritage Foundation — one of the conservative movement’s brain trusts — and expressing his frustration over a recent meeting he had with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“I said to him, ‘If you don’t get it, you don’t get it!’” Chavous recalls. What he finds particularly galling is that the president and education secretary’s decision to kill off the program flies in the face of the political values they pretend to stand for. In fact, the biggest names in D.C.’s school-choice battle are local politicians such as Chavous and parents such as Virginia Walden-Ford. Walden-Ford, who had a son in the program, is now executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice.

Now how does a president who started out as a community organizer in Chicago’s housing projects justify denying educational opportunities to students in D.C.’s housing projects? “The community organizer Barack Obama would have walked with these people,” observed Chavous. “The community organizer Barack Obama would have been standing with us. That’s what I told Duncan to go back and tell the president.”

Chavous wasn’t speaking at the Heritage Foundation just to throw stones at the White House. The school-choice movement in D.C. has set about winning hearts and minds. Chavous was there to introduce a 30-minute film produced in conjunction with Heritage that gives an overview of the issue. The film features NPR and Fox News correspondent Juan Williams and is expertly produced and deeply affecting — no mean feat considering that many aspects of school choice are highly technical.

Here is the film (article continues after jump):

The facts and events presented make an almost inarguable case for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: The $7,500 vouchers cost about half of what it does to educate a student in D.C.’s dismal public schools; 36 percent of adults in D.C. are functionally illiterate; D.C. has the highest rate of child poverty in the country; the vast majority of D.C. residents are in favor of the program; a study earlier this year showed the program to be a success, but the Department of Education tried to squelch it. A prominent National Education Association teachers’-union leader explains why the powerful Democratic constituency protects the status quo in education: “It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power.”

The film comes just a few weeks after another public-relations coup for the school-choice movement. On September 30, a rally at the Capitol attracted thousands — almost all of them students and parents from the district. Prominent speakers in favor of school choice included Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner, former education secretary Margaret Spellings, and even Bruce Stewart. Stewart isn’t exactly a household name, but until last year the mild-mannered Quaker educator was the head of school at Sidwell Friends, the elite private school the president’s two children attend. At the rally, Stewart compared the fight for school choice to the school-integration fights he witnessed firsthand in North Carolina as a young teacher. When I asked Stewart at the rally if he thought that the Democrats needed to do more to stand up to the teachers’ unions, he responded: “I don’t know if I’ve if I’ve ever felt anything deeper in my life — yes.”

In May, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings on D.C. school-choice program, the committee invited six interested parties to defend ending the program. Not one accepted the invitation.

The D.C. school-choice movement aims to keep the pressure on. There’s considerable evidence to suggest the public is on their side, so the more they can force those who supported terminating the program to publicly defend their actions, the sooner the program will be reinstated. President Obama, his education secretary, and the Democratic leadership are going to have to explain to Kevin Chavous why they have dashed the hopes of America’s most vulnerable students. Their response should be, well, educational.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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