By Kelly Amis and Joseph E. Robert Jr.
Monday, March 8, 2010; A13
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.
With their support for the scholarships, Rhee and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty put children's futures ahead of politics, just as former Mayor Tony Williams, former D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous and former School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz did when the program was created in 2004.
Unfortunately, congressional leaders -- especially Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) -- crumpled before teachers union threats, led by American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, who declared everything open to negotiation "except vouchers."
The unions' antagonism toward private school scholarships (they've practically made "voucher" a dirty word) lies not only in their constant drumbeat that scholarships "steal" money from public schools; it's also the fear of losing members. If more students can access private schools, more teachers will eventually find jobs in that sector, and the unions won't have access to their often-compulsory dues.
And this might jeopardize the teachers unions' position as the single-largest contributor to federal-level political campaigns in America.
Norton's opposition to scholarships for local children might seem particularly confusing -- until you realize that her largest political donor is the AFT.
In a Charlie Rose interview, Weingarten referred to teachers as "powerless." As a group? Hardly. "Powerless" describes low-income students trapped in miserable schools.
Ending Opportunity Scholarships would be a tragedy for low-income parents everywhere because it says: Even when an education program works, the powers that be will tear it from the hands of children if it threatens their hold on the system.
We applaud Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), who join Lieberman in working to restore the program. And we hope their colleagues -- and the administration -- will have the courage to stand up for local children, too.
Kelly Amis is founder of Loudspeaker Films and a former public school teacher. Joseph E. Robert Jr. is a D.C. education philanthropist.