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A second-term agenda for Obama: Stop messing with school vouchers in D.C.

In April of last year, when President Obama (D), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed on a budget averting a government shutdown, the winners weren’t just the government workers and various recipients of government assistance who didn’t miss a paycheck.

The winners were also children from low-income D.C. families.

That’s because the budget deal also reauthorized the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for another five years, ensuring funding for the voucher program that had raised graduation rates, improved academic achievement and left parents satisfied.

Or so we thought.

Fast-forward a year and a half, and we see how that agreement extended only so far. Last fall, the first year after the reauthorization, saw a 60 percent increase in OSP enrollment, giving D.C. families hope that the trend would increase this year, allowing them to participate in the oversubscribed program.

But maneuvering from the U.S. Education Department prevented the scholarship program from growing. Numbers released last month highlighted enrollment increases in traditional D.C. public schools and public charter schools. But despite an increase in funding from $15.5 million last year to $20 million in 2012-13, there was a net decrease in the number of students participating in the voucher program.

It’s not because of lack of demand. I have long been a supporter of the president, and I continue to applaud many of his education initiatives, including his embrace of charter schools. But his administration’s opposition to giving low-income families the full slate of educational options — captured when he zeroed out funding for the program in his budget this year, despite the earlier deal in which he agreed to reauthorizing the program for five years — is unacceptable.

The drop in participants is a natural outgrowth of two unforgiving scheduling decisions. First, the Education Department prevented the program’s administrator from accepting applications after an arbitrary date of March 31 of this year, shutting out anyone who came forward after that cutoff. Then, scholarship lotteries for the 2012-13 school year weren’t allowed to take place until July, far later than many parents could wait to make decisions about where their kids would attend school in the fall. Nobody at the department can give straight answers as to why.

In practical terms, what this means is that only 319 new students were offered scholarships, despite demand for many more.

These roadblocks are part of a long history of the administration’s resolute opposition to the voucher program, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan rescinding 216 scholarships in 2009 to the department ignoring the positive results of a gold-standard study, conducted by its own Institute of Education Sciences, that found that D.C. voucher students graduate at a rate of 91 percent — more than 20 percentage points higher than those who sought a voucher but either didn’t get one or didn’t enroll in the program after being accepted. Because of the delaying tactics of the department, a credible — and federally mandated — new study of the program cannot be conducted unless the program enrolls hundreds of new students next year.

It’s sad, too, because the Opportunity Scholarship Program has an eight-year history of positive results for kids. More than 11,000 families have applied since inception.

The Education Department says its mission is to “promote student achievement . . . by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Instead, it’s standing in the way of the District’s children, which not only isn’t in the spirit of the law to which the president agreed — it’s also just plain wrong.

It’s a tragedy that even with more money, higher demand and more space, fewer low-income parents are able to choose to put their child in a better educational setting. Why is the Education Department standing in the way of the city’s poor children? When will the administration stop playing politics with our kids?

On many occasions during his first term, President Obama demonstrated an ability to embrace education reforms that help kids, and I expect that to continue now that he has won a decisive reelection. What’s different about this one? This is an easy one: All he and his Education Department have to do is get out of the way and let a successful program work.

The writer is a senior adviser to the American Federation for Children and a former member of the D.C. Council.

 
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