1,900 Scholarships

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

DEL. ELEANOR Holmes Norton's campaign against school vouchers in the District has hit a new low. While proclaiming a desire to protect children, she is seeking to eliminate a program that benefits them and that is valued by their parents. Her actions make it all the more urgent for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to convince Congress that the educational interests of children are more important than party ideology. Failure to do so would imperil not just the 1,900 children in the scholarship program but the essence of school reform in the District.

On Tuesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee is set to take up provisions in President Bush's budget for $18 million to continue the five-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for next year. It is part of an unprecedented $74 million earmarked for education in the District. In April, Mr. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray appeared before the House subcommittee on financial services and general government to speak in support of the initiative, which gives low-income students scholarships to attend private schools. Ms. Norton is not a member of that subcommittee, but she made a special appearance to attack the program.

Even worse, as The Post's Valerie Strauss and Bill Turque reported Monday, it now turns out that Ms. Norton is preparing a plan that could end the program after just one more year. Ms. Norton won't discuss her plan, and she would, rather disingenuously, have the public believe that she is acting only to ensure an orderly transition of students from a program doomed because of the opposition of others in her party. But, at best, by refusing to support the mayor, she is helping to doom a program that gives poor parents an opportunity that others in this country take for granted: the chance to choose a decent school for their children.

For parents such as Patricia William, that means the probable loss of an educational opportunity that has transformed her 11-year-old son. Ms. William is not alone in her praise of the program and in her panic about the possibility of its demise. The voucher pilot is intended to measure and compare children's progress in private schools over a span of several years. But one result already is known: Poor parents do not want their children automatically consigned to failing schools any more than middle-class parents would. Talk to parents and grandparents of children afforded what should not be the luxury of choice and you'll hear stories of thanks and success -- stories of young women such as Tiffany Dunston, this year's valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School. Ms. Norton turned a deaf ear to these accounts during a recent meeting, dismissing the scholarship families as "befuddled." Catherine Hill, whose grandson graduated from the Academy for Ideal Education, told us that the only thing the group doesn't understand is why Ms. Norton "hates a program that works so well."

Much, though certainly not all, of the opposition to vouchers is rooted in Democratic interest-group politics and the traditional resistance of teachers unions to change. And that is what should worry Mr. Fenty. If this worthwhile program can be sacrificed, so can the many vital reforms he and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are hoping to put in place.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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