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The Right People to Decide D.C. Vouchers' Fate

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, April 4, 2009

In a March 29 column on The Post's Local Opinions page, Joseph E. Robert, a member of the board of D.C. Children First, denounced congressional Democrats for voting to require that any school voucher or D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program appropriations after the 2009-10 school year be reauthorized by Congress. Robert was not alone in his anger. Editorials and columnists have echoed the complaint.

Robert called the Democratic stance "outrageous," noting that Capitol Hill lawmakers are "politicians who have the means to provide what they see as the best educational opportunity for their children -- many in schools alongside [voucher] scholarship students."

To be fair, he and other supporters of D.C. school vouchers are correct in charging that the reauthorization requirement virtually kills the voucher program.

The chances of a Democratic-controlled Congress, heavily influenced by teachers unions, renewing a D.C. school voucher plan that was put in place by a Republican Congress and President George W. Bush in 2004 are about as good as a herd of elephants flying.

That said, blaming Congress alone for not keeping the program alive leaves too many others standing safely on the sidelines.

All that stands between the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and its future as an educational opportunity for the more than 1,700 District children it serves are eight people.

Those essential eight won't be found among the 435 members of the House or the 100 U.S. senators. Neither are they located at the U.S. Department of Education, the Obama White House or prestigious Washington think tanks.

The potential saviors of the D.C. voucher program are 100 percent Washingtonians, conveniently housed in a building downtown and within easy reach of Robert and all advocates of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

They are on the 13-member D.C. Council, where only seven votes are needed to pass a District-funded voucher program. The eighth enabler? Mayor Adrian Fenty, who would have to sign the program into law.

That's right. Instead of badgering Congress to look out for the disadvantaged D.C. children who are attending private schools of their parents' choice, courtesy of the nation's taxpayers, why not turn to the public officials most responsible for those children -- their local representatives?

The timing couldn't be better. The city has just initiated its new budget cycle with final action slated for mid-May, when the fiscal 2010 budget must be approved. All that the seven members and the mayor would have to do is find $12 million in the mayor's $5.4 billion budget to fund the voucher program beyond next year.

It should be a snap. That is, if the program is as popular and as desired as Robert and his fellow voucher supporters maintain that it is.

Advocates should try taking the pro-voucher arguments with which they have been pounding the Democratic Congress and test them out on Fenty and the council. They should be buoyed by the Education Department study released yesterday that found the D.C. voucher program has had a positive impact on academic performance. Some students not receiving vouchers, the study indicated, would need to spend 3.1 additional months in their public schools to achieve the same results as voucher students. I haven't seen the other side of the argument, but there it is.

More important, why ask members of Congress -- who have their own states and districts to represent -- to carry the load for D.C. scholarship recipients when the District has the capacity to do the same thing?

Why shouldn't the District make it possible for children to attend the private school of their parents' choice? Clearly, if any group of public officials should be concerned about the fate of these 1,700 students, it should be those closest to the children and their families.

I believe public charter schools provide an opportunity for low-income children to attend good alternatives to traditional public schools. Clearly charter schools are fulfilling the promise that school voucher advocates have made on behalf of publicly funded scholarships: namely, to put competitive pressure on traditional public schools.

I prefer working to improve public schools, both traditional and charter. But that's besides the point.

If, as the Alliance for School Choice's interim president, John Schilling, claimed in a news release yesterday, "there are thousands of parents and students -- those currently participating, those who have applied for the next years, and those waiting in line," then it would seem that they and their supporters should be marshalling their forces to persuade the mayor and council to continue the program, after its federal funding expires next year, with D.C. -- not federal -- tax dollars.

Of course, it follows that if the city's elected representatives listen carefully to the arguments of voucher advocates as well as those of other interested parties and supporters of public schools and conclude, as the Democratic Congress has, that they do not wish to support continuance of the voucher program, then advocates of vouchers must recognize that the District of Columbia's elected leaders, reflecting the wishes of their constituents, have spoken, and that's that.

This is a home-rule issue in its purest form.

Let the District's elected leaders decide.

kingc@washpost.com

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