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Save D.C.'s Vouchers

By Margaret Spellings
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Better schools. Higher scores. And satisfied parents. That's the record of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. It is helping us keep our promise to leave no child behind in America. If Congress is thinking of breaking this promise, the nation deserves to know the story.

Signed into law by President Bush four years ago, the program is the first to provide federally funded education vouchers to students. It awards up to $7,500 per child for tuition, transportation and fees; in 2007-08 it enabled 1,900 students from the underperforming Washington public school system -- the highest total yet -- to attend the private or religious schools of their choice.

For many, this was their first opportunity to receive a high-quality education. "They not only educate them, but they are teaching them to be young men and young women as well," Sheila Jackson, the mother of a 12-year-old scholarship recipient, told a reporter.

An independent study of the program released last year confirms this parental satisfaction. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) found that parents of scholarship children express confidence that they will be better educated and even safer in their new schools. A study by Georgetown University found increased parental involvement and student enthusiasm for learning.

The IES study reported academic gains in reading by three student subgroups, totaling nearly 90 percent of all students. They gained the equivalent of two to four extra months of learning. An IES report last year found increased math scores among some of the same subgroups.

This is especially impressive when you consider that nearly all of the participating students are from families that are at or below the poverty line; the average income of participating families is $22,736, only $2,000 above the poverty level for a family of four. Ninety-nine percent of the children are African American or Hispanic. Many escaped poorly performing public schools, where they worked below grade level in a city that has struggled for years to educate its young.

Whether the children were failing school or the schools were failing the children, the District of Columbia's leaders finally became fed up with institutionalized failure. They designed a unique "three-sector" strategy that provided new funding for public schools and public charter schools and new educational options for needy children.

Working with the District, Congress and the Bush administration then implemented the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act in 2004, giving birth to D.C. opportunity scholarships.

The program has clearly filled a need. Evidence does not just appear on a chart. It is visible in the long lines of parents waiting to participate. More than 7,000 students have applied for scholarships. Eligible applicants represent nearly one in eight low-income District students.

With demand so high, it is dismaying that critics, including some members of Congress, would seek to dismantle the program. Some claim that vouchers are unconstitutional; the Supreme Court, however, ruled otherwise years ago. Others argue that local funds should not be diverted to private schools. But the $74 million for the three-sector strategy comes from federal funds -- money that the District would otherwise not receive.

Still, there are hopeful signs. Last month, the House Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government approved the continuation of funding for D.C. opportunity scholarships at the program's current level. While subcommittee Chairman Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) has expressed opposition to vouchers, he nevertheless deferred to the wishes of local leaders.

We, too, must place student welfare above personal ideology. Advocates of the status quo fear that opportunity scholarships will succeed, not fail. They believe that allowing children to escape underperforming schools will hasten the decline of all public schools. This is exactly backward. The opportunity to choose will push schools to improve to keep families from leaving.

If Congress were to discontinue funding for D.C. opportunity scholarships, 86 percent of the students would be reassigned to schools that did not meet "adequate yearly progress" goals in reading and math for 2006-07. We cannot allow that to happen. Fortunately, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee share my enthusiasm for reform. It's an exciting time for education in Washington. The three-sector approach enjoys strong support among District residents. It has been a catalyst for innovation. It may also inspire other cities to develop their own scholarship programs.

Congress should listen to the voices of parents and students. Lawmakers should vote to ensure that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has the resources not only to survive but to grow, for this school year and beyond. Our children -- and our nation -- deserve nothing less.

The writer is secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

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