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Presumed Dead
Politics is driving the destruction of the District's school voucher program.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan has decided not to admit any new students to the D.C. voucher program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools. The abrupt decision -- made a week after 200 families had been told that their children were being awarded scholarships for the coming fall -- comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it's clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way.

Officials who manage the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program sent letters this week to parents notifying them that the scholarships of up to $7,500, were being rescinded because of the decision by the Education Department. Citing the political uncertainty surrounding vouchers, a spokesperson for Mr. Duncan told us that it is not in the best interest of students and their parents to enroll them in a program that may end a year from now. Congress conditioned funding beyond the 2009-10 school year on reauthorization by Congress and approval by the D.C. Council. By presuming the program dead -- and make no mistake, that's the insidious effect of his bar on new enrollment -- Mr. Duncan makes it even more difficult for the program to get the fair hearing it deserves.

That's not to mention the impact of the last-minute decision on these families. Many of the public charter schools already have cut off enrollments for the upcoming school year; the deadline for out-of-boundary transfers for the public schools has passed. No doubt Mr. Duncan is right about possible disruption for new students if the program were to end. But scholarship officials have been upfront with parents about the risks, and the decision really should be theirs. Let them decide whether they want to chance at least one year in a high-quality private school versus the crapshoot of D.C. public schools.

That, after all, is what this program is about: giving poor families the choice that others, with higher salaries and more resources, take for granted. It's a choice President Obama made when he enrolled his two children in the elite Sidwell Friends School. It's a choice Mr. Duncan had when, after looking at the D.C. schools, he ended up buying a house in Arlington, where good schools are assumed. And it's a choice taken away this week from LaTasha Bennett, a single mother who had planned to start her daughter in the same private school that her son attends and where he is excelling. Her desperation is heartbreaking as she talks about her daughter not getting the same opportunities her son has and of the hardship of having to shuttle between two schools.

It's clear, though, from how the destruction of the program is being orchestrated, that issues such as parents' needs, student performance and program effectiveness don't matter next to the political demands of teachers' unions. Congressional Democrats who receive ample campaign contributions from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers laid the trap with budget language that placed the program on the block. And now comes Mr. Duncan with the sword.

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