D.C. School Vouchers Deserve Congressional Support

Thursday, May 7, 2009

POWERFUL evidence of the worth of the D.C. school voucher program was on display at yesterday's rally in support of the program. Hundreds of children, outfitted in the uniforms of the private schools they attend through vouchers, sat in rapt attention as one of their own read a poem he had written: "Surrender me from the typical stereotype of a black young man . . . I am a whole different guy." It is to President Obama's credit that he wants to uphold the right of fledging poet Carlos Battle and 1,715 other voucher recipients not to have their educations disrupted. We can't help but wish, though, that other needy students would get the same opportunity of choice.

Just as the rally was breaking up in Freedom Plaza, word came that Mr. Obama would seek to extend the program until all participants in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program graduate from high school, although no new students would be admitted. Considering that some of the students are in pre-kindergarten, that would be an admirable commitment. It also would be welcome relief to parents who, since the program's start in 2004, have had to worry about Congress yanking funding for the federal grants of $7,500. Details of the president's plan remain sketchy, but we hope he has included provisions that would allow the siblings of voucher participants to enroll.

Mr. Obama had never embraced vouchers, so it bespeaks a pragmatic open-mindedness that he would put aside that philosophical opposition in deference to the interests of these children. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan told us earlier, it doesn't make sense "to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning." Maybe there was also some thought given to the political optics of booting hundreds of poor, black students from private schools back into troubled public schools.

It remains up to Congress to provide appropriations for the program. It was the Democrats who wrote what they hoped would be a death sentence for the program by cutting off any future funds unless the program was reauthorized. The National Education Association, a teachers union allied with the Democrats, has been on a mission to end the program as soon as possible, with no regard for the children whose lives would be affected. We hope Mr. Obama will fight for the compromise he has embraced.

In an ideal world, we would hope for more than that compromise. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee had already scheduled a hearing next week to evaluate the program. Parents, students and a scientist who have studied the program are among those scheduled to testify. It seems that D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty declined a chance to testify but will submit a statement, a move that is depressingly typical of his lukewarm support for the program. The hearings need to be conducted with an open mind. If indeed this program is shown to work to the benefit of children, it should be continued. And, not -- we submit -- just for the ones who are lucky enough to be in it now.

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