D.C. support needed to pressure Congress on school vouchers

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

SENS. JOSEPH I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) haven't given up on their bid to save the federally funded voucher program that allows low-income families in the District to send their children to private schools. We would like to see them succeed, but it's clear that President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have already written the epilogue to this worthy program. Their disregard for how vouchers have helped children is so complete that it seems that the best chance, perhaps the only chance, for the program's survival is for local officials to step in.

The latest evidence of the administration washing its hands of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is seen in the 2011 budget proposal it unveiled this week. It targets $9 million for the program but specifies that this will be "the final request" for federal funding. Administration officials say that the money, combined with unspent reserves, is sufficient to fulfill the president's promise that students currently in the program will be able to graduate from high school. That's disputed by the nonprofit that runs the program, which estimates that at least an additional $7 million is needed, along with a legislative commitment requiring the program's continuation for families currently enrolled.

Adding to the uncertainty is the disappointing decision by the Washington Scholarship Fund to drop its administration of the program. No one -- not administration officials or those with the scholarship fund -- could tell us what will happen to the approximately 1,300 students if there is no one to handle their scholarships. Indeed, one has to wonder whether the administration is banking on the possibility that students will drop out of the program. What easier way to get rid of this pesky program that's so despised by the teachers unions and other traditional allies of the Democrats? It's troubling that an administration that supposedly prides itself on supporting "what works" is so willing to pull the plug on a program that, according to a rigorous scientific study, has proven to be effective.

The best solution, of course, is the one sought by a bipartisan coalition lead by Mr. Lieberman for Congress to reauthorize the program. He is set to announce plans Thursday to offer the reauthorization as an amendment to legislation moving in the Senate, and he's hoping for help from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), majority whip and chairman of the subcommittee that funds the program. Mr. Durbin gave lip service to his possible support but has been content for Congress to let the program go down the tubes.

Indeed, at one point, Mr. Durbin pretty much dared local officials to take over the program if they thought it was so important. The program is important to low-income families who see it as their children's only path to a good education. If the president and Congress won't see that, then we hope that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council will.


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