Precedent for helping children in need

Many opponents of parental choice assert that using educational tax dollars for anything but public schools would be essentially unprecedented. Actually, public funds have been used to support students in private schools in a variety of well-accepted ways, especially when those students require additional resources.

The Washington Post editorial board points out that special-needs students whose public schools cannot meet their needs are able to access public funding to attend a private school that can. And private schools also receive money for certain supplies, professional training, technology, and Title I services. As the Post states, “As long as the money is seen as benefiting the child, it is deemed a proper, even desirable, use of public dollars.”

Which brings up a good question with regards to the DC Opportunity Scholarships:

If a school system can’t educate a child — whether because of acute special needs or its own historical failings — why should that child not have options for a ‘free appropriate public education’? “

The WaPo editorial can be read here.


Warriors for hope

Senators Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have given low-income families a sign of hope and courage this week by requesting that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rethink his decision to refuse new applicants to the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.  In a letter dated April 21, Lieberman and Collins ask that the program be given a fair hearing before any decisions are made about its future:

We respectfully request that you refrain from implementing significant changes to the program until we have an opportunity to review the program’s results, hold public hearings, and have a thoughtful debate about the future of the program.”

The full text of the letter can be found on Senator Lieberman’s website here.

A hint of hypocrisy: Parental choice only for the powerful

A new survey shows that 38% of members of Congress have at some point made the choice to send their children to private school.  (Nationally, only 11% of U.S. students are currently in private schools.)  The Washington Post points out the incongruity of making this decision for your own family while preventing low-income families from having the same choice–which is exactly what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and DC OSP opponent Sen. Dick Durbin seem to be doing.  Read the editorial here.

Williams: Education, “by any means necessary”

Too often education reform is seen as a nearly decades-long process whose best ideas are always to be found in the future.

Former DC mayor Anthony Williams, the father of the DC Opportunity Scholarships Program, reminds us that the poor state of U.S. education is not just a political issue, but an issue of justice. As such, it demands urgency.

In an editorial in the Washington Post, Williams and former DC Council member Kevin Chavous challenge officials to use any means necessary to improve education quality and equality:

Ensuring that every American child receives equal access to high-quality education represents our last civil rights struggle. By any objective measure, the educational offerings we provide for our children, particularly children of color, do them a disservice. …

The reality of our children’s deficits demands much more than we have given them. Platitudes, well-crafted speeches and the latest three-to-five-year reform plan aren’t good enough. We must find ways to educate every child now, by any means necessary.

It was that spirit that led us, as elected officials of the District in 2003, to promote the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

Read their entire editorial here.

Shirking the burden of proof

Last week, after the release of positive research findings on the impact of the DC OSP, the Chicago Tribune called out its own senator and the Secretary of Education:

Sen. Durbin, Secretary Duncan, the evidence is piling up on your desks. The burden of proof is squarely on you to prove why, after so few years, we should stop—and stop evaluating—a program that is showing certifiable prospects of changing the futures of disadvantaged kids.”

(Read the entire editorial here.)

This week, the Secretary’s department seems to have dismissed that responsibility.  In explaining the DoE’s recent decision not to admit new students into the program for 2009-2010, a spokesperson for Duncan told the Washington Post that he does not want to have new students begin a program that is in jeopardy, presumably so as not to disrupt their education too much.

This reasoning shows not proof but politics.  No one wants a child’s education to be unnecessarily fractured or disjointed, but the DoE’s decision will only be adding disruption for many families, especially given its timing.  Consider the following:

1. The DoE decision to decline new applicants came just one week after families with newly-eligible children had received letters encouraging them to apply for the scholarship.

2. The decision came after the DC public school “out of boundary” lottery was closed, and after the top charter schools were filled, leaving parents with even less choice than usual in their children’s education.

3. If rising kindergarteners aren’t able to join their siblings as scholarship recipients, families will face a difficult decision: try to juggle having children at two different schools, or remove older siblings from their preferred school and send all to the DC public school they had been trying to leave.  For those trying to make ends meet, running between multiple schools is often not just inconvenient–it’s an impossibility.

4. The decision came one week after the release of positive research findings about the DC OSP’s effect on student reading, leaving one to wonder exactly what kind of proof of success would be enough.

5. The decision disrupts the process that even Congressional opponents of the OSP had agreed on in the omnibus bill: continue the scholarships (including new applicants) for 2009-2010, and hold hearings this spring to examine the evidence for reauthorization.  Apparently giving the program a fair hearing is not what the DoE intends–at least, that will be the clear message coming from this abrupt discontinuation of new scholarships.

The faces of opportunity

No matter what the issue, there’s always a danger that public policy discussions will take place in isolation from those who will be affected most by policy decisions.  So it is reassuring that the stories of several children receiving the DC OSP have been highlighted recently in the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Today, read about Julio, a fifth-grader at St. Thomas More School, whose mother Vonette has seen him vonetteflourish thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship.  See the Catholic Standard’s webpage to find out how Vonette has been fighting to keep the scholarship.

Earlier installments in the series:

Read about Brenda and Katherine, two sisters whose Opportunity Scholarships allowed their family to choose the safer, more structured environment of Sacred Heart School.  More at this page.

Tsion and Meckias, the children of refugees who fled the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, have found increased motivation at St. Anthony’s School.  Find their story here.

And Ronald, an Archbishop Carroll High School sophomore, credits the Opportunity Scholarship for his ronald-holassiesuccess at becoming the DC deputy youth mayor for legislative affairs.  Read about his experience and goals for the future in this article.

Stay tuned to this blog for more profiles of the families and children who will be helped most directly by increased parental choice–or whose lives will be most disrupted if the DC OSP is not reauthorized.

DC scholarships undercut by “abrupt decision”

Just one week after the release of positive findings about the effects of the DC Opportunity Scholarships Program, Department of Education officials in charge of the program have declared that no new recipients will be enrolled for the 2009-2010 year.  This decision comes despite the fact that Congress, in the same omnibus bill that was intended to let the scholarships die quietly, had still provided for the program to accept new applicants for one more year while Congress was considering re-authorization.

Apparently the Department of Education and Secretary Duncan are hoping for a swifter end to the program.  While the decision not to enroll new students will not be the final word on the issue–and students previously enrolled will be able to continue for the 09-10 school year–it’s a clear sign that the DoE is trying to kill the possibility of re-authorization before this spring’s promised Congressional hearings even begin.

As the Washington Post noted in its editorial, “It’s clear, though, from how the destruction of the program is being orchestrated, that issues such as parents’ needs, student performance and program effectiveness don’t matter next to the political demands of teachers’ unions.”  Read the editorial here.