Open to Vouchers?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

SEN. RICHARD J. Durbin (D-Ill.), never a big fan of the federally funded vouchers that allow disadvantaged D.C. children to go to private schools, was downright brutal as he questioned one of the program's operators at a recent oversight hearing. We were glad, though, to hear Mr. Durbin ask why some schools aren't accredited, rail about teacher qualifications and wonder about testing. Instead of talking about doing away with vouchers, this influential Democrat seemed focused on ways to improve the program -- and that's a good sign for parents wanting to get a better education for their children.

Mr. Durbin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government, signaled he might be willing to continue the program. "I have to work with my colleagues if this is going to be reauthorized, which it might be," Mr. Durbin said. It was a notable statement coming from the key architect of language that made future appropriations to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program dependent upon new congressional authorization. Voucher opponents, notably teachers unions, hoped that would be the end of the five-year-old program. Indeed, it seemed that they were getting their wish when the administration rescinded scholarships promised to students this fall.

It's encouraging, then, that Mr. Durbin seems to be taking a closer look at the program. He has visited schools that participate in it, meeting with the low-income parents and children who now receive up to $7,500 to go to a private school of their choice. No doubt Mr. Durbin has been affected by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's support for vouchers as part of a three-prong (along with public school reform and charter schools) approach to improving education in the nation's capital. Ms. Rhee testified at an earlier hearing that she could not in good conscience tell a parent today to put his or her child in a traditional public school. She estimates that it will take her five years to fix the schools, and, until then, parents must have choices.

It was clear from Mr. Durbin's grilling of Gregory M. Cork, head of the fund that administers the program, that some changes will be needed if he is to back efforts by a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), to reauthorize the program and accept new students. His concerns -- legitimate in our mind -- about oversight and the quality of some schools clearly rattled the scholarship operators. No doubt they are right to be suspicious of changes that could hurt the program. But we would like to think that if Mr. Durbin were intent on killing the program, he wouldn't be spending so much time talking about how to make it better.

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