Congress shouldn't betray D.C. scholarship program

By Kelly Amis and Joseph E. Robert Jr.
Monday, March 8, 2010

When President Obama signed a $450 billion spending bill in December, his signature effectively dismantled a small, successful education program benefiting low-income children in the nation's capital. This week, a bipartisan coalition led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) is calling on Senate colleagues to restore it.

Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may prevent the Senate from even voting on the measure. Who wants to vote against an effective program serving poor minority children?

Congress needed only to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program -- as the local community asked it to do and as the research should have compelled it to do -- but the members who mattered ignored the families outside their white marble offices, even rescinding scholarships to hundreds of hopeful students.

Obama could have stood up for these children, who only want the same opportunities that he had and that his daughters now have. Instead, his education secretary, Arne Duncan, proffered an argument that would be funny if it weren't so sad: Scholarships for poor students aren't worth supporting because not enough of them are given out.

Note to Duncan: You could give out more.

What's an education secretary in charge of $159 billion (and counting) to do?

Duncan had the temerity to admit that Opportunity Scholarship students "were safe and learning and doing well . . . [but] we can't be satisfied with saving 1 or 2 percent of children and letting 98 or 99 percent down." This is a false choice. But, were it fair, his answer would be to let down 100 percent instead?

Fortunately for the secretary, his children won't be in that 100 percent; he moved his family to Virginia. For the schools. He explained that he "didn't want to try to save the country's children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children's education."

Some say the scholarship program isn't needed because charter schools can fill the void. But charters and private school scholarships are not mutually exclusive reforms, and while the District's charter program is vibrant, it is far from providing all local students with an excellent education.

Indeed, charter schools are just part of the District's "three-sector strategy" toward education reform. This strategy, which we helped to design, presumes that all children deserve excellent schools and that every school effectively and appropriately educating students -- whether traditional, private or charter -- should be applauded and supported.

The strategy is working. The competition of new options created a landscape in which Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee could take steps only dreamed of by prior administrations: refining the downtown bureaucracy, closing near-empty schools and shifting the savings to academic programs, and holding teachers more accountable.

One might think that Rhee, as chancellor, would have supported ending the Opportunity Scholarships. Instead, she told Congress that it would be a challenge for public schools to reabsorb the students and provide them with an equivalent education.

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