“I rise to speak in favor of the amendment offered by Senator Ensign, myself and others, which would strike language currently in the Omnibus that is crippling to the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The language we seek to strike terminates the OSP program unless a reauthorization bill is passed by Congress and the DC Council prior to 2010 – 2011 school year.
“First, Mr. President, let me remind my colleagues, that it is possible and entirely consistent to be a strong advocate for public schools, and to support the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. Indeed, we have worked hard in the Senate on a fair and comprehensive approach to help students and schools in our Nation’s capitol; an approach that provides funding for public and charter schools as well as for scholarship vouchers. It is an approach that puts children and their families first by giving parents a full range of options so that their children can get the best education available. Those parents that have chosen to participate in the voucher program strongly support the program’s continuation. And the modest amounts of funding for vouchers has not, in any way, undermined DC’s public schools, which continue to receive our support and improve under the leadership of Chancellor Rhee.
“This scholarship program affords low income parents the same opportunity that more affluent parents enjoy, and that many of us in Congress enjoy – and that is the opportunity to send our children to private schools.
“The average household income of the families in the program is about $24,000. How in good conscience can we tell parents in the District that they will be denied the resources to do what they believe is best for their children, when many of us make the very same decision regarding the education of our own children? The DC Scholarship program springs from our national commitment not just to opportunity, but to the equal opportunity that each and every American child has to go as far as their talents and education will take them. It must not be jeopardized by the language in this bill.
“As Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee I am committed to holding hearings this spring that will allow us to fairly evaluate the voucher program. We hope to have new data soon on test scores and we will review how the program is being administered. I am open to proposals to improve the standards and administration of the program, and I will propose some of my own. But I believe the restrictive language in this bill is damaging to the OSP program and should be removed. It is also accompanied by damaging report language which suggests that students in the program should begin to pack their bags for a transition back to the public schools. Our new Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has recognized the unfairness of that proposition.
“We agreed in our discussion of the DC Voting Rights Act that there would be sufficient time on the floor this spring to consider a reauthorization of the voucher program and I pledge to work diligently to implement this agreement in the coming months, and to evaluate and reauthorize this program if that is what makes sense. But the language in this bill, which prevents future funding unless a reauthorization bill is enacted in record time, and requires action by the DC Council, sends the wrong message to the 1700 plus students in the program and their parents.
“It is common practice to fund programs whose authorizations have expired. According to the most recent CBO report issued two months ago – and I quote – “In recent years, the total amount of unauthorized appropriations reported by CBO has generally ranged between $160 and $170 billion.” Let me repeat: $160 – 170 billion dollars. Why then, Mr. President, are we singling out the $14 million dedicated to provide school choice to low income students in the District of Columbia?
“I think we owe it to the families who are participating in the voucher program to give it stability and fair and ample consideration. When it comes to issues of education the focus must always be on the children, not on the institutional status quo. We must work to ensure that those participating are not deprived of an opportunity to make their lives better and that all kids continue to have access to a high quality education. No child should be caught in the crossfire between combating interest groups.
“I continue to be committed to improving public education across this nation. But the OSP program does not take money from public schools nor does it hamper efforts to improve public schools. It simply offers a choice to low income families whose children are in struggling schools.
“We should give this program a fair evaluation and a fair chance to succeed without prejudice.”