Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Debunking the “Purely Symbolic” and “Fundamentally Rhetorical” Argument against the D.C. Voucher Program

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) stands with AFC senior advisor
Kevin P. Chavous, parent activist Virginia Walden Ford,
and OSP students at a press conference in March of 2011.
When Kevin Carey of Education Sector called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) “purely symbolic” and “fundamentally rhetorical” in a piece published recently in The New Republic, he was continuing a false, sad, yet unfortunately oft-used argument against education initiatives that benefit children from low-income families.

Carey's description of the D.C. voucher program as merely symbolic is an insulting description to the more than 1,600 students from some of the city's lowest-income families who, thanks to the program, attend the school of their parents’ choice.  He suggests that the program was created merely to give the "impression" that lawmakers are serious about reforming education.  But this program is about far more than impressions and appearances.  

The OSP helps more than 1,600 students, 92 percent of whom would otherwise be attending a school in need of improvement if not for their scholarship.Since the program was created in 2004, more than 11,000 students have applied to participate. Parents of students who are in the program are satisfied with their child's new school at a rate of 92 percent. By those and many other measures, it's clear that the program works.

As Carey points out, the program has a high graduation rate; but what he fails to acknowledge is that the graduation rate is actually 91 percent—more than 21 percentage points higher than students who applied for and did not receive a scholarship, and more than 30 points higher than the general D.C. public school population. Carey also fails to know the improvement in reading scores exhibited by the students in the program, as discovered by a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. And according to the program’s administrator, 89 percent of OSP graduates went on to enroll in a two- or four-year college.  The sheer number of parents students interested in the program—despite special interests working to limit its size and scope—coupled with increased academic attainment and achievement levels demonstrate that the OSP is far more than a literary tool.

But more astonishing than calling the OSP symbolic is the assertion that the OSP was created for a “fundamentally rhetorical” purpose—as if lawmakers did not care about children from low-income families when they went about giving them more desperately-needed choice in their educations.  The elected officials behind creating this program and ensuring its survival are a bipartisan group of leaders that gain no political points for helping these families. They derive no profit, oftentimes have to fight against strongly-entrenched political interests, and stand against an Administration that has routinely stood in opposition of the program.

The D.C. voucher program about helping children who are stuck in some of the nation’s worst performing public schools with no means of escape. Even in a town dripping with political gamesmanship, what do folks like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Daniel Lipinksi (D-IL) have to gain from bucking their party? Not much, except the knowledge that they're doing what's right on behalf of low-income students. Is Carey really cynical enough to believe that support for this program is about political gain?

Apparently so, when he continues with the often-used argument that the OSP was imposed on the District.  But one should recall that the fight for the program began under the leadership of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, a staunch Democrat who championed the program prior to and at its inception. The City Council also had—and today still has—broad, majority support for the program. Among the program's most vocal and active supporters is former councilmember and AFC senior advisor Kevin Chavous—yes, another Democrat. And let's not forget to mention the fact that 74 percent of D.C. residents last year supported the reauthorization of the program.

What these leaders—and leaders on the Hill—created was a three-sector approach to funding education in the District, which equally funds the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, charter schools, and public schools. This approach allows funding to improve public schools, while offering alternatives in the form of public charter schools and private schools via the OSP.  This not only debunks Carey's imposition argument, but also shows that the OSP does not take money away from public schools.  In fact, the three-sector approach allows additional appropriations for D.C. education. It's a relatively paltry sum when compared to the total per-pupil spending in D.C. and other big cities, yet it's still having a remarkably rich effect on District families.

Finally, Carey states that the program is not scalable. As it exists today, the OSP is an example of a federal program designed to help children from low-income families who are trapped in failing public schools and have not won the lottery to attend a high-achieving charter school and lack the income to afford a quality private school.  But imagine this: the OSP scaled up as a competitive grant program where states can apply for funds to be used in the three-sector approach: improving public schools, funding public charter schools, and providing much-needed scholarships to students in low-income families.  Now that’s a picture education reformers should strive to make a reality.

Carey, like many pseudo-education reformers, is just offering more excuses to not include all options when it comes to education policy.  If both Democrats and Republicans really want to reform our education system and provide a quality education to all children, all options—including vouchers—must be on the table.

That’s true in D.C. and across the nation.

- American Federation for Children | Alliance for School Choice, MSG

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