March 30, 2011

Seventy-four percent of people rarely agree on anything.

In a Pew poll in September, for instance, not even 60 percent of Americans could correctly name Joe Biden as the vice president. But here in Washington, there is overwhelming consensus on something: education reform. More specifically — the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Indeed, 74 percent of city residents, multiple members of the D.C. Council — including Chairman Kwame R. Brown — former local Democratic elected officials like me and former mayor Anthony A. Williams, and thousands of parents, students and other activists all support the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, set for a vote in the House today. This legislation would reauthorize the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a federally funded initiative that provides low-income children with money to attend private schools. It would also infuse the District’s traditional public and public charter schools with $40 million in additional funding per year.

It’s a smart, well-constructed plan. But if we were to listen only to the national narrative surrounding school choice in the District, it would seem as if all of the program’s supporters were Republicans and none of them have any connection to the city besides happening to work here on weekdays.

In reality, local support for returning all options to the District’s low-income children comes from all corners of the city. After years of divisive battles over the creation of the program, its destruction in 2009, and its path toward resurrection in the current Congress, there is wide support among local leaders for the view that reauthorizing the program will be beneficial for students and families, as well as all three education sectors serving children in the city. Even Mayor Vincent Gray has in the past expressed support for the three-sector federal initiative, and it was noteworthy that he was not critical of the voucher program itself — emphasizing instead home-rule issues and the success of the city’s public and charter schools — in his lone Capitol Hill appearance to testify on the reauthorization bill.

The only significant local opposition comes from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who claimed at a House oversight hearing on the SOAR Act that providing educational options for low-income students was somehow a ploy by Republicans to use District children to further a set of “ideological preferences” by dismissing the “independent, self-governing” nature of Washington.

But if the city is to truly be self-governing as its representative suggests she wants, Norton and other scholarship opponents must do what they so often criticize others for not doing. They must listen to the city’s residents.

The only common ideology among supporters of the Opportunity Scholarship Program is that it’s the right thing to do. Parents of the 91 percent of program participants who graduate from high school know that, as do the parents of students who have seen their children increase their reading scores through the program. These are certainly many of the same people who elected Norton to her 11th term as their representative in Congress with 89 percent of the vote in November.

This is not, as pundits often contend, a partisan issue. The large majority of the city’s residents are Democrats — myself included — and we believe in a set of core values that are consistent with both Democratic ideals and a more fundamental set of ideals rooted in the belief that all children deserve a chance to receive a quality education by any means necessary.

And we’re tired of seeing opponents of school choice use traditional party breakdowns as cover for opposition to a program that works or use disparaging language about the intentions of the other side. The fact of the matter is that those who continue to fight for this program want what’s best for the District’s children, and there is a simple reason why a city full of Democrats want to bring the Opportunity Scholarship Program back to the nation’s capital: It’s the right thing to do.

The writer is board chairman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Democrats for Education Reform, and a former member of the D.C. Council.