Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Washington Post Gets it—Why Not the Administration?

The Washington Post’s editorial board has continued to stronglysupport the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—a voucher program that allows children from low-income families to attend the private school of their parents’ choice.  The editorial board called the scholarship program “worthwhile,” but referred to the deal struck between the Congressional leaders and the Obama Administration “modest” and “disappointing.” An appropriate characterization, we think, since this deal was made after the Administration failed to comply with the deal it made with Congress last year.

In sum, the Administration agreed to the very agreement to which they agreed over a year ago.

The Administration’s opposition to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is puzzling on many fronts.  Never mind that the President himself attended a high-achieving private school thanks to a scholarship that helped his family with the tuition, and that sends his daughters to one of the city's most elite schools, which also participates in the voucher program. And again, never mind that Secretary Arne Duncan chose to live in Arlington, Virginia, which has some of the best-performing public schools in the nation.  The issue at hand is that the Administration continues to try to not fund a small federal program that is “enormously popular with D.C. residents, with demand far outstripping the number of vouchers [available].”

An Administration that claims to support both low-income families and expanded educational options certainly puts in a lot of effort to make sure families right here in the District don’t have access to strong educational options.  This a policy contradiction in its most clear form. After all, the Administration supports Pell Grants— effectively vouchers for post-secondary educationand public charter schools, not to mention a wide variety of policies that are targeted to low-income families, including housing vouchers. It's beyond unfair for District families to be locked out of the program because of arbitrary funding limits.

Those families want this program: nearly 10,000 families have applied to the program since it was created in 2004.  And the program works: participating students had a 91 percent graduation rate—more than 21 percentage points higher than those interested in the program who did not receive a scholarship—and 92 percent of parents report being satisfied with the program.

But what's perhaps most striking is the defense tactic taken by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who attempted to "clarify" the Administration’s position on the scholarship program to ensure that no one is confused. Take a look below, noting that, again, the president signed into law the five-year reauthorization of the program last April.

You may have seen a few stories yesterday that left a misleading impression that the Obama administration changed our position on vouchers. That’s not true. As we said yesterday, our focus is on making sure all students get a world-class education. The best way to do that is by reforming our public school system. Despite the agreement to allow a modest increase in the number of students admitted to the DC voucher program next year to comply with a Congressionally-mandated study, there has been absolutely no change in policy.

We get it.  The Obama Administration does not support the scholarship program.  Both Tuesday’s comment, as well as historical precedent set by the Administration, prove that fact. (You'll recall that, in 2009, Secretary Duncan rescinded 216 scholarships that had been awarded to new students and closed it off to any other new applicants.)  

Still, we're happy that the program—for the next year, at least—will be fully implemented in order to best serve as many low-income D.C. families as possible. But as The Post notes, that this fight is not likely to be the end of the political battle. Says the paper:

Despite this week’s development, we are under no illusions that the battle to preserve this worthwhile program is over. The administration’s churlish response makes clear that it won’t extend itself on behalf of the program, and opponents are intent on getting the Senate to strip funding in fiscal 2013. What shouldn’t get forgotten in this seemingly endless fight are the people with the most at stake: parents who simply want what’s best for their children.

The paper notes that there is not mutual exclusivity between school choice and improving public schools. With their influence and reach, the Administration could very easily advocate for both ideals, but they refused to do so.

District families deserve better.

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

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