Any doubt that Congress is still in the grip of entrenched special interests, in this case the powerful teachers unions, is belied by a provision in the omnibus spending bill passed by the House last week and working its way through the Senate.
It would effectively end a successful program offering widened educational opportunity to poor and minority children in the nation’s capital, whose schools are particularly troubled and dangerous.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program started in 2004. It offers scholarships up to $7,500 to poor and minority children to attend private schools. The government schools in the District spend about $14,000 per student, but barely half those students ever graduate high school. One in eight D.C. students in a recent survey reported being assaulted or injured with a deadly weapon at school.
The program was carefully designed to produce comparative results so the outcomes of participating students can be assessed as scientifically as possible. Preliminary results are due in June, but surveys of parents whose children have taken advantage of the program — 1,800 this year — show overwhelming satisfaction with it.
Typical of parents’ attitude is the reaction of Deborah Parker, who has two children enrolled at Sidwell Friends School, chosen by President and Mrs. Obama for their children. “The mere thought of returning to public school frightens me,” Parker was quoted as saying in an editorial by the Washington Post, hardly an outpost of reactionary thinking. As the Post editorial went on to say: “Tell her, as critics claim, that vouchers don’t work, and she’ll list her children’s improved test scores, feeling of safety and improved motivation.”
The Opportunity Scholarship Program costs $14 million, a mere blip compared with the $100 billion allocated for education-related federal spending in the recently enacted “stimulus” bill. But it is important symbolically to teachers unions, which despise voucher programs.
Naturally, Congress chose a convoluted back-door method to shut down opportunity for the 1,800 mostly minority students in the program. Instead of shutting down the program outright, it requires it be reauthorized by Congress and then approved by the D.C. City Council. Most federal programs are reauthorized automatically.
As an earlier Post editorial noted, “Staff members on various House and Senate committees scoffed … when we asked them about the chances of getting such a program reauthorized in less than a year.” Considering the present makeup and mood of Congress, the smart money would bet against any reauthorization at all.
When expanding federal spending on educational programs of dubious value, politicians are fond of proclaiming they are “putting children first.” This shameful action suggests that when it comes to real children seeking to improve themselves and actually doing so in the troubled city where the hallowed halls of Congress are located, children come last.