April 10, 2012

WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA reached a deal with Congress last year to reauthorize for five years the District’s program of federally funded school vouchers, families in the program and those who hoped to participate breathed easier. Tired of the political gamesmanship that annually threatened a program offering low-income children the chance of a better education, they welcomed the certainty. They may have celebrated too soon.

Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget requests zero funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows children from low-income D.C. families to attend private schools with federal vouchers of up to $12,000 annually. It has proved popular and successful. More than 10,000 families have sought to participate since the program’s start in 2004, and polls show a majority of D.C. residents favor it. But teachers unions oppose it and, with the help of obliging Democrats, have tried — unrelentingly — to kill the program.

The administration argues that there is sufficient money to take care of currently enrolled students through the 2013-2014 school year and to allow new awards through attrition. But, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) pointed out in a March 22 letter to the president, such tortured logic runs counter to the law. The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, part of the larger budget deal reached last year to avert a government shutdown, authorized annual appropriations of $60 million for five successive years, to be allocated equally among the voucher program, the D.C. public school system and public charter schools. This three-sector approach recognizes the importance of parents having choices for their children as public school reform continues.

The administration’s action — which includes a bizarre provision prohibiting students who are unsuccessful in the lottery that allocates spaces in the program from reapplying the following year — would effectively place an arbitrary limit on the number of children able to enjoy the program’s benefits. Why cap the number at the 1,615 students currently enrolled when the program has accommodated larger numbers (1,903 in 2007-08, for example)? Does the administration really want to send the message — much like the one delivered in 2009 when Democrats tried to kill the vouchers — that there is not much of a future for the program?

Surely, it shouldn’t be among the president’s priorities to single out for attack a tiny federal program that not only works — in the judgment of federal evaluators — but also enjoys bipartisan support. If it is, we trust that Mr. Boehner would step in, as he did last year, to save a program that D.C.’s poorest families value for their children.