Reauthorization bill introduced

Yesterday, U.S. Representatives Boehner (R-OH), Issa (R-CA), and McKeon (R-CA) continued to provide hope to thousands of low-income families by introducing a bill that would reauthorize the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.  This action continues the process that will be necessary in order for the program to begin accepting new students.  The bill will face an uphill battle in the largely-Democratic House, and the fact that the bill is sponsored by three Republicans might not provide much enticement for bipartisan support.

Still, public and media attention on the issue–not to mention the increasingly loud voices of DC parents–may add pressure to those on both sides of the aisle.  Boehner, the House Republican Leader, emphasized his hope that his fellow Congressmen will focus on the best interest of low-income children and their families:

All year long, the students served by the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program have been caught in the middle of a political fight about whether to continue this successful program … We know where Washington, D.C. parents stand on this issue: they want the program to continue. … On behalf of the children who have been given a chance to attend a high-quality school thanks to this innovative program, let’s take politics out of this issue and pass this legislation with bipartisan support.”

Click here to read press releases by Boehner, Issa, and McKeon.

A copy of the bill can be downloaded by clicking here.  (For those of you who haven’t spent much time perusing House legislation, the first couple of pages are surprisingly interesting.)

Parental choice as parental rights

As the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is debated in Washington and beyond in the coming weeks, proponents will be largely emphasizing one message: the program works.  Children get a better education when families are able to choose the schools they attend.

But the pragmatic argument shouldn’t obscure a larger question of justice. In an opinion for the Catholic University of America’s student newspaper, The Tower, ACE graduate Kevin Somok explains:

The relevant question is, rather, whether a given program helps ensure that parents have, in reality as well as law, the rights to which they are entitled precisely as parents. And to this question the answer is clear: the OSP is a
resounding success.”

Read a PDF of Somok’s argument for parental choice as a matter of justice.

Committee hears strong support for OSP

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On Wednesday, Senator Lieberman held a committee hearing on the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.  The committee heard first-hand from many individuals: Latasha Bennett, a single mother whose 8-year-old son is in the OSP; two recipients of Opportunity Scholarships who attend(ed) Archbishop Carroll High School (an ACE placement); former DC mayor Anthony Williams; Bruce Stewart, the principal of Sidwell Friends, the school the Obama daughters attend; and Dr. Patrick Wolf, the chief investigator on the recent study that showed the program having a statistically significant impact on student reading level.

For those who know Senator Lieberman as one of the most vocal Senate supporters of the DC OSP, it comes as no surprise that all of these speakers were favorable toward the OSP.  What might be a surprise is the fact that Lieberman had invited OSP opponents to testify, but all turned him down, including leaders of teachers unions. (The Washington Post provides more explanation in this article.)

Senator Voinovich, who initiated parental choice in Ohio as governor, provided perhaps the most energizing few minutes of the hearing when he explained his strong disappointment that those who lobbied against the program were not willing to “stand up and be counted” at the hearings:

“The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers do not like this program.  And the thing that disturbs me, and children this is a lesson for you and your parents, [is that] they’re not here today.  They haven’t got the guts to come here today and look [OSP recipients] Tiffany in the eye and Ronald in the eye and Latasha in the eye and say, ‘You know what?  We’re going to cut off your program.’  If this is such a bad thing, where are they?”

But the most touching and important testimony of the day was from the mother and students whose lives have been so improved by the opportunity to select a quality school.  Latasha Bennett has seen her son Nico excel at Naylor Road Private School, but her 4-year-old daughter Nia will be denied that chance if the OSP is not reauthorized.  Ms. Bennett spoke movingly about the challenge:

I want Nia to have the same opportunity to excel as well as her older brother. Nia is so looking forward to going to Naylor Road with her brother that she continues to ask me, ‘Mom when do I go to school with my brother?’  I used to answer her and tell her, ‘Very soon’; now I don’t know what to tell her.  My children really need this program to continue.  Without it I truly don’t have a clue as to where I will send them to school.  My assigned neighborhood school is not an acceptable place, and options are so limited at this late date.”

Click the video above for coverage of the entire hearing.  Senator Lieberman provides an opening statement and a good background on the issue from 18:20 to 32:00.  The first three individuals testify beginning at 39:30.  Senator Voinovich speaks at about 86:15, when they recommence after the recess.  Senator Burris, the only individual who was not supportive of the OSP during the hearing, shares his thoughts at 96:40.  The second panel of witnesses (Williams, Stewart, Wolf) begins at about 111:00.

You can also find the video and the witnesses’ written testimony at the committee website.  Finally, see the Washington Post’s editorial here.

Pulse of the experts

The Washington Post recently asked a wide range of government and education policy leaders for their opinion on President Obama’s decision to allow current recipients to maintain their DC Opportunity Scholarships until high school graduation, but not to offer new scholarships.  Contributors include Democratic and Republican officials, a former secretary of education, the DC schools chancellor, the president of the national teachers union, and think tank leaders.

The resulting article is what one would anticipate: a wide spectrum of opinions, some of which nearly drip with partisan rhetoric.

Some of the most interesting observations, however, came from Michael Petrilli, of the nonpartisan Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  Petrilli points out two “missteps” that the “typically fleet-footed” Obama administration has made with regard to the Opportunity Scholarship Program:

First [the administration] believed that the issue was a sideshow, hardly important next to its larger efforts to reform the nation’s schools through the stimulus legislation…

Its second mistake was to ignore the recent federal evaluation of the program, which found it to be boosting participants’ reading skills. Such strong findings are rare in rigorous social science research, and few of the president’s other pet issues (including worthy ones such as charter schools and merit pay for teachers) have similar evidence of effectiveness.”

Read the rest of Petrilli’s comments, and those of many others, in this article.

Public hearing set for May 13

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will begin discussion of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program’s future on Wednesday, May 13, with a public hearing titled, “The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Preserving School Choice for All.”  The hearing is open to the public and will be a great chance for any parental choice supporters in the Washington, DC, area to get involved and see the process in person.  (It will likely also be on CSPAN.)

The hearing is scheduled for 10:00am in room 342 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building (see map here).  Those who haven’t been to a hearing before should know that they often fill up quickly, so plan on getting there early and be ready to be patient.  A staff member for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the chairman of the committee, suggested arriving by 9:45am to get a seat, but others have said the line might start forming a couple hours earlier.

This and future hearings will be extremely important, because even though President Obama has announced a budget that would keep current scholarship recipients in the program through their high school graduations, no new students will be allowed into the program unless Congress reauthorizes the DC OSP and local officials approve it.  The Washington Post’s latest editorial urges that the program be extended:

It is to President Obama’s credit that he wants to uphold the right of fledging poet Carlos Battle and 1,715 other voucher recipients not to have their educations disrupted. We can’t help but wish, though, that other needy students would get the same opportunity of choice.”

Read the editorial here.

Action time! 1,000+ rally for DC OSP

With Congressional reauthorization hearings beginning next week, the fight for the DC OSP is stepping into high gear.  Over 1,000 parents, students, teachers, and other supporters gathered on Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, on Wednesday to show their support for the scholarship program.

After hearing from former DC mayor Anthony Williams, current DC scholarship recipients, and other supporters and activists (including recording artist Mya), the sea of yellow T-shirts walked across the street to deliver a petition with 7,000 signatures to Mayor Fenty’s office.  The mayor, who supposedly is in favor of the DC OSP, continues to be lukewarm in his vocal support, even turning down an opportunity to speak at the Congressional hearing this Wednesday.

The video and photo postings show a ton of energy and many students at the rally.  Here’s hoping it’s just the beginning of a groundswell that will encourage Congress, the President, and local officials to, as the protesters chanted, “Put children first.”

Click here for local ABC coverage and NBC coverage.  The Weekly Standard’s blog has great photos here.

Or view local CBS television coverage below:

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Obama’s DC OSP extension may still end program

According to the Washington Post, President Obama is set to release budget documents that will include funding for all current 1,716 DC Opportunity Scholarship recipients through their completion of high school.  The move would revise legislation passed in the omnibus bill, which would have required Congressional reauthorization to continue the program in any form after the 2009-2010 school year.  President Obama’s action will ensure that all current recipients will receive the grants every year until they graduate high school–with no Congressional action required.

This good news for the short term could prove to be dangerous news for the long-term, however.  It appears that the Obama administration’s budget will do nothing to allow new students into the program.  At the end of the day, it would still mean the killing of the program.

The dangerous part is that by making this compromise, President Obama will likely satisfy many critics and perhaps slow the movement that seeks more quality school options for all families.  There’s no question that the decision to extend current scholarships was a good one that will help many children receive a better education, but it doesn’t go far enough.  Why should we give up on the children who aren’t yet receiving the scholarships?

One silver lining is that the current recipients’ remaining school years would be an opportunity for continued study of the program’s effect on their performance.  The longitudinal data gained could provide a clearer understanding of the impact of parental choice on students and families, which everyone with the children’s best interest in mind should support.  Of course, that’s assuming that such research would be funded and that the results would be taken into consideration–a big assumption, given how lightly the recent findings were taken.

Find more about the President’s budget documents and their impact on the DC OSP in this Washington Post article.

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