Politics & Policy

Obama’s Continuing War against D.C. Kids

Senator Tim Scott with students at the Richard Wright Public Charter School in D.C. (Getty Images)
Conservatives keep the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program alive.

For the seventh year in a row, President Obama has proposed defunding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a school-choice program that allows inner-city students in the nation’s capital to escape failing and often dangerous public schools.

As Stephen Moore detailed recently in the Wall Street Journal, the Opportunity Scholarship Program serves nearly 5,000 students, 95 percent of whom are African-American. It funds private-school tuition for poor families, so that their children can attend schools they would otherwise not be able to afford. It accounts for a minuscule 0.0005 percent of the federal budget.

Nevertheless, the president — who recently stressed “opportunity gaps” in inner cities — has never missed a chance to try to end this program that benefits almost exclusively poor, minority, inner-city children. Of course, there is no speech, photo-op, or press release to go along with this annual tradition of his.

Ending the program would be a devastating blow to the thousands of students whose futures depend on it. Students in the program have a 91 percent high-school graduation rate, compared with 56 percent for D.C. public schools. One parent asked the obvious question: “If you’ve got a program that’s clearly working and helping these kids, why end it?”

Other families who benefit from the Opportunity Scholarship Program describe it as “a godsend for our children,” a “life-saver,” and “our salvation.” One father told Moore, “I truly shudder to think where my son would be today without it.”

Unfortunately, President Obama will never hear this testimony for himself — he refuses even to meet with these families. He is joined in opposition by nearly every Democrat in Congress, including Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. and the families benefiting from the scholarship program.

Fortunately, the program is kept alive by conservatives in Congress like House Speaker John Boehner, Representative Paul Ryan, Senator Ted Cruz, and others who stand in solidarity with these families — despite the fact that most of them represent populations demographically very different from inner-city Washington.

Why are conservatives standing with poor inner-city families, while President Obama and his liberal allies try to take away their opportunity?

So why are conservatives standing with poor inner-city families, while President Obama and his liberal allies try to take away their opportunity? Well, it is probably not a coincidence that many liberal campaigns are huge beneficiaries of teachers’-union largesse — and teachers’ unions feel threatened by school-choice programs, which create competition and accountability in education (rather than monopolizing the system and trapping kids in union-controlled schools). Of course, the union leaders don’t say this. When defending their actions, they claim that school choice strips funding from public schools.

But Congress addressed these funding concerns when setting up the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Because the program provided $20 million for choice vouchers, they gave an extra $20 million to the public schools. Moreover, we know from experience that dumping more money into the public-school system does not improve outcomes. The country as a whole has more than doubled education spending over the past 40 years, but achievement has flat-lined — and still the unions oppose school choice. As one parent put it, unions “aren’t afraid that the voucher program won’t work — but that it will.”

There also is a degree of hypocrisy in President Obama’s opposition to the scholarship program. While he sends his own children to the elite, $30,000-per-year Sidwell Friends School, poor students who live just a couple of blocks away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would have no choice but to attend failing, inner-city schools if the Opportunity Scholarship Program were shut down. Should these kids not have the same educational opportunities as President Obama’s daughters?

One parent half-joked, “He lives in public housing too — why should he get school choice because he’s rich and we’re not? If it’s good for your children, it’s good for our children.”

Education is the first step to a brighter future, and school choice is creating just that for millions of students around the country, and thousands every year here in Washington. President Obama’s desire to defund the Opportunity Scholarship Program is at best ironic, coming from the leader of a movement that lends so much lip service to ending income inequality and uplifting poor communities.

Fortunately, the conservative legislators mentioned above and many others stand up to President Obama and defend the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program year after year. By advocating for this and other school-choice programs, conservatives are the ones actually providing thousands of impoverished students “hope” and “change” they can believe in.

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