Our friends at the American Federation for Children note a disappointing absence from the FY 2016 omnibus spending bill hammered out this week: Language reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has provided private-school tuition vouchers to more than 6,000 low-income, predominantly minority children in the District since its creation in 2004, and which is set to expire next year, was left out of the bill’s final text.
That will thrill Democrats, who have sought desperately to kill D.C.’s flourishing school-choice program. Every year since his first inauguration President Obama has proposed defunding it, despite waxing eloquent about the importance of strong schools, and Democrats have regularly backed the effort. If many D.C. parents have had better options for their children that the District’s miserable public schools, it’s been because of Republicans, among them John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who each year have worked assiduously to keep the program alive.
That dynamic played out again just recently. In October, the House passed a Boehner-sponsored bill to reauthorize the program through 2021. But a Senate bill to do the same — co-sponsored by Democrats Cory Booker (N.J.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Republicans Tim Scott (S.C.) and Ron Johnson (Wisc.) — was killed by Democratic leadership.
That is a victory for D.C. public-teacher unions — and a loss for parents and students. The success of the D.C. voucher program is beyond dispute, as Americans for Prosperity senior policy analyst Akash Chougule noted in our pages in May:
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.”
And, as many have noted, the D.C. voucher program is not just good policy, but good politics. Chougule, again:
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.”
Republicans’ advocacy for voucher programs has accrued to the benefit primarily of low-income and minority families in cities across the country. And there is no reason to think it cannot eventually accrue to Republicans’ electoral benefit. It should be only too easy to show how Democratic leaders have worked hard to ensure that unions maintain their decades-old stranglehold on students’ educational prospects, and keep the most vulnerable students from thriving.
The omnibus bill funds the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program through 2016, but putting a bill on the president’s desk to reauthorize it for a second, much-deserved decade should be among Republicans’ first priorities in the new year.