Fenty MIA on Vouchers

By Marc Thiessen
Thursday, March 5, 2009 10:41 AM

Editor's Note: An updated version of this column, including a quote from Mayor Adrian Fenty, was published on March 7.

Eight days after President Obama took the oath of office, another less noted inauguration took place in our nation's capitol -- when Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty swore in Ronald Holassie as deputy youth mayor for legislative affairs. Holassie is a 10th grader at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District, where he is thriving -- running track, studying physics, mentoring middle school students, and attending meetings of the Mayor's Youth Cabinet. He loves Archbishop Carroll. "If I didn't have this school," he recently told Washington's Catholic Standard, "I wouldn't be here at this point. I wouldn't be the deputy youth mayor."

But unless Mayor Fenty convinces Congress to change course, Holassie may not get to finish his senior year at Archbishop Carroll. His family can afford tuition at the Catholic high school only because of the voucher he receives from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. And congressional Democrats have included a "poison pill" in the omnibus spending bill before the Senate this week that would kill the scholarship program after the 2009-10 school year. If the bill passes in its current form, Holassie and more than 1,700 District students could lose scholarships of up to $7,500 that allow them to attend private or parochial schools of their parents' choice. The average household income of students in the program is $22,736 -- which puts these schools out of their reach without the federal aid.

The program was set up in 2004 with the strong support of Mayor Anthony Williams, who vocally championed D.C. Opportunity Scholarships in the halls of Congress during his time in office. By contrast, Mayor Fenty has been a study in silence. I made repeated requests to the mayor's spokesman, Feras Sleiman, for any recent statements the mayor has made or actions he has taken to urge Congress to save the program. He could not provide any. Instead, he sent a terse e-mail statement: "The Mayor is committed to a three-sector approach to education, which is composed of traditional public schools, public charter schools, and vouchers."

The mayor's failure to speak out in defense of one of those sectors is killing it. With Democrats in control of Congress, a lobbying effort by the mayor, or even a strong public statement during this critical week, could turn the debate around. He could be making calls, meeting with senators, raising the stakes on behalf of poor District families. But thus far he has failed to lead. And his inaction is sending the wrong signal to those on Capitol Hill -- creating the impression that he does not care whether the program survives.

Stepping into the leadership vacuum are Senators John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who have introduced a bipartisan amendment to strip out the poison pill language from the omnibus bill. But Democratic leaders in the Senate are refusing to allow their amendment to come up for a vote. Ensign and Lieberman are determined to keep up the pressure on Democratic leaders and fight for these kids.

The pressure seems to be having an impact on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. On Wednesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a voucher opponent, said that kids already going to private schools on scholarships should be not be pulled out of those schools. This is a welcome contrast to congressional Democrats, who issued report language instructing District schools to prepare students with D.C. Opportunity Scholarships to re-enroll in the public school system after the 2009-10 school year. Duncan seems to grasp what Congressional Democrats do not -- that kicking poor, minority kids out of good schools is bad politics. But Duncan made no commitment to support continued enrollments for students who want to apply in the future. Thousands do. There are four applications for every available scholarship. If congressional Democrats prevail and the program is shut down, 85 percent of scholarship students would be forced to attend low-performing schools in the District.

The hypocrisy is palpable. A 2003 Heritage Foundation survey found that, while only 10 percent of American students attend private schools, 41 percent of congressmen and 46 percent of senators responded that they had sent children to private school. When President Obama came to Washington, he passed up the District's public schools and sent his children to the prestigious Sidwell Friends school. Two Sidwell students will lose their Opportunity Scholarships if Democratic leaders in Congress kill the program. There is nothing wrong with choosing the best possible school for your children -- but doing so while denying that choice to poor District students is shameful.

Ronald Holassie made education his top priority as deputy youth mayor -- and his efforts have made an impression. Former mayor Williams recently said, "Ronald [Holassie] is one example of a student who is doing well and realizes how important it is that he speak up -- not only for himself but for children in D.C. who would like the same opportunity."

Those children need Mayor Fenty to speak up as well.

The writer was chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush.

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