Fenty, MIA on Vouchers

By Marc Thiessen
Saturday, March 7, 2009

Editor's note: A previous version of this column was published on March 5.

Eight days after President Obama took the oath of office, another, less noted inauguration took place in our nation's capital -- when Mayor Adrian Fenty swore in Ronald Holassie as deputy youth mayor for legislative affairs. Holassie is a 10th-grader at Archbishop Carroll High School, 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 persuades 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 could 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 the students' 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. By contrast, Mayor Fenty has been a study in silence.

The mayor's failure to speak out in defense of the program has been killing it. With Democrats in control of Congress, the mayor could have launched a lobbying effort to save the scholarships -- making calls, meeting with senators, raising the stakes on behalf of poor D.C. families. But he has failed to lead. And his inaction is has sent the wrong signal to Capitol Hill -- creating the impression that he does not care whether the program survives.

Stepping into the leadership vacuum are Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who have introduced a bipartisan amendment to strip the poison-pill language from the omnibus bill. Democratic leaders initially refused to allow their amendment to come up for a vote but have scheduled it to come to the Senate floor next week.

With a vote pending, the mayor finally issued a tepid statement last night: "Political leaders can debate the merits of vouchers, but we should not disrupt the education of children who are presently enrolled in private schools through the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program."

This is at least in contrast to congressional Democrats, who issued report language accompanying the bill instructing District schools to prepare students with D.C. Opportunity Scholarships to reenroll in the public school system after the 2009-10 school year. But the mayor said nothing about the thousands of students who want to apply in the future. There are four applications for every available scholarship. Will the mayor speak up for these students as well? His statement will be taken by congressional Democrats as a green light to kill the program once current participants graduate.

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 their children to private schools. President Obama himself passed up the District's public schools and sent his daughters to prestigious Sidwell Friends. Two Sidwell students will lose their Opportunity Scholarships if Congress kills the program. There is nothing wrong with choosing the best possible school for your children -- but doing so while denying that choice to poor D.C. students is shameful.

Ronald Holassie has made education his top priority as deputy youth mayor -- and his efforts have made an impression. Former mayor Williams recently said, "Ronald 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, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, served in senior positions at the White House and the Pentagon from 2001 to 2009, most recently as chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. His wife works for Sen. John Ensign as staff director for the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

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