District Children Need Scholarship Program

By Joseph E. Robert
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Walls are usually constructed with two things in mind: to keep people in or to keep people out. Sometimes both. When it comes to low-income children in Washington, the last thing we should be doing is building walls to cut them off from educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what Congress seems intent on doing. Recently enacted legislation would put up unprecedented barriers that are intended to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. They would disrupt the education of more than 1,700 of Washington's most disadvantaged children and deny the opportunity to thousands more in the future. This is an outrageous position, particularly from politicians who have the means to provide what they see as the best educational opportunity for their children -- many in schools alongside scholarship students.

They are ignoring evidence that the program is working. Studies have shown that parents are more involved in their child's education, that children have an increased enthusiasm for school and that families want the program to continue. Initial results show that after less than two years, children who received a scholarship have higher math and reading test scores. More comprehensive results of the congressionally mandated study are due this spring, but Congress has shown its true motives by trying to kill this popular program before all the evidence is in.

Politicians must be held accountable. They may try to say that they are not killing the program or that they won't disrupt current scholarship recipients, but those are just smoke screens. The legislation they passed creates unprecedented barriers for this program, while in the same bill funding other programs for which there is no evidence of effectiveness. And denying opportunities for tomorrow's children is just as bad as ripping them away from current students. One cannot help but be left with a bad taste from the hypocrisy of it all.

While Congress has put up these walls, President Obama and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty must speak up. Fenty has told me and many others that he supports the continuation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a program that was requested by his predecessor, Anthony Williams, as part of a three-sector package to improve all D.C. schools. Obama should remind Congress that he wants to move beyond the tired political arguments of the past and focus on results -- and therefore reauthorize the scholarship program. Leaders who stand silently by only condone the actions of those who are trying to eliminate the program.

Right now, some families in Washington are feeling pride and joy from acceptance letters received from private schools. These families all share the desire to find the right school for their child. Why, then, would we build walls so that only the privileged few can actually attend the school of their choice?

The future leaders of Washington and possibly the nation desperately need educational opportunities that will help them succeed. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is one of those opportunities. We should be finding ways to expand that opportunity, not building walls to keep it away from those who need it most.

The writer is chairman and chief executive of J.E. Robert Cos. and a member of the board of DC Children First.

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