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Vouching for Vouchers
The educational interests of 1,900 D.C. children are riding on Adrian Fenty's trip to the Hill tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

IN MAKING education his top priority, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has been guided by one principle: Children trump politics. It's an idea that Mr. Fenty might want to expound on when he goes to Capitol Hill this week to defend funding for the city's unique school voucher program. Political ideology and partisan gamesmanship should not be allowed to blow apart the educational hopes of hundreds of D.C. children. Congress must respect the judgment of District leaders in giving parents a choice in one of the most crucial aspects of their children's lives.

A minefield awaits Mr. Fenty as he prepares to testify tomorrow before a House appropriations subcommittee. President Bush's budget includes an unprecedented $74 million to bolster education in the District, dividing the money along three pathways. Public schools would get a big chunk to undertake such initiatives as teacher "pay for performance" and leadership training for principals. There would be money to replicate high-performing charter schools. And $18 million would go to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides grants for low-income children to attend private schools; it is this third purpose that's expected to come under scrutiny, if not attack. A Republican-controlled Congress barely approved the program in 2004, and the Democrats who now rule the House are sworn enemies of vouchers. It doesn't help that District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has been a fierce opponent.

We would hope that Congress would recognize certain truths. First, that the time for a rhetorical debate about this program has passed. There are 1,900 children enrolled -- quite happily -- in the program. What's at stake is not a political point of honor but the opportunity for children to go to schools that work for them. Second, it's a program that is supported by District leaders and embraced by their constituents. A measure of its popularity is how demand for the scholarships outstrips capacity. It's encouraging that the House subcommittee on financial services and general government, which will hold the hearing, is chaired by Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), a true believer in the importance of home rule.

Of all the arguments against vouchers, the most pernicious is that they hurt public schools. Never mind that D.C. public schools benefit financially from the funding formula. Public schools failed long before vouchers were even conceived of, and no less an authority than D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee dismisses that argument out of hand. As she told the Wall Street Journal, "I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent's ability to make a choice for their child. Ever." Let's hope Congress feels that same compunction.

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