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Students, Parents, Teachers Rally to Save D.C. School Voucher Program

Demonstrator Robert Brannum, who opposes D.C. school vouchers, faces program supporters at a rally near the Russell Senate Office Building on Wednesday.
Demonstrator Robert Brannum, who opposes D.C. school vouchers, faces program supporters at a rally near the Russell Senate Office Building on Wednesday. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

About a thousand parents, students and teachers gathered outside the Capitol on Wednesday morning in support of the D.C. school voucher program, which is up for reauthorization in Congress.

Chants of "put kids first" floated toward Senate office windows as students waved signs that said "School Choice Now" and "Save Our Scholarship."

"We're still here, and we're not going away!" said former education secretary Margaret Spellings, who spoke in front of the crowd along with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and others.

The federally funded voucher program provides scholarships to low-income District children to attend private schools. In the 2008-09 school year, it spent about $12 million on 1,716 students. This year the program will be slightly smaller because it was closed to new students in the spring, when its funding came in doubt.

Many attending the rally were young students, and anxious organizers periodically shushed the crowd and told them to listen politely to what the speakers had to say. Many Catholic schools took the day off for the rally, and other schools were represented as well.

One student worried about where voucher students would go if the program ends. Students wouldn't have many good options, said Ronald Holassie, 17, a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School. He said the best public and charter schools in D.C. have waiting lists.

"You're talking about 1,700 children" receiving vouchers, he said. "Where are they going to go?"

Students also talked about their old D.C. public schools, which they found lacking.

"You couldn't really get the attention" in public schools, said Jotresa Williams, 15, a sophomore at Preparatory School of D.C. At her new school, she said, "you get to learn more."

One speaker said the controversy over the vouchers was a symptom of a broader problem with the way Congress deals with education.

Bruce Stewart, who retired in June as head of Sidwell Friends School, where Sasha and Malia Obama as well as two voucher students attend, said U.S. public schools were lagging behind those of China and India.

"You shouldn't consign these kids to mediocrity because of an accident of where they were born," he said, pointing to poor-quality public schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Democratic congressional leaders have said they want stricter oversight of participating schools if the program is to continue in any form. President Obama has expressed support for continuing the program for students already participating but gradually winding it down by closing it to new applicants.

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