New hope for the District's school voucher program

Tuesday, March 16, 2010; A18

THE D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program may finally get the attention it is due on the floor of the Senate. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) plans to offer an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that would continue federally funded vouchers for low-income students attending private schools in Washington. This could well be the program's last chance, so it is time to separate fact from fiction about this important initiative.

Mr. Lieberman's proposal would provide for another five years and -- unlike the disappointing "compromise" touted by the Obama administration -- would permit the enrollment of new students. With a vote possible as early as Tuesday, opposition groups are stepping up their attacks. The National Education Association claims the program "has yielded no evidence of positive academic impact on the students the program was designed to assist." Americans United for Separation of Church and State says vouchers have "taken money away from the D.C. public schools." Others, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say it's improper to use taxpayer dollars to fund the religious education of children.

To those who claim that the program hasn't helped targeted students, we offer the results of the rigorous scientific study that Congress insisted on when the pilot program was launched in 2004. "The D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government's official education research arm so far," wrote Patrick J. Wolf, principal investigator for the Education Department's study. He went on to say: "in my opinion, the bottom line is that the OSP lottery paid off for those students who won it. On average, participating low-income students are performing better in reading because the federal government decided to launch an experimental school choice program in the nation's capital."

Also not true is the charge that public schools have suffered a loss of resources. In fact, additional federal funds were directed to the city's traditional public and charter schools as part of the three-sector initiative establishing the voucher program. If, as critics claim, public schools are suffering, why has D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee emerged as one of the strongest advocates of continuing the voucher program? Unlike some members of Congress, she has a hard time consigning children to dismal futures.

Finally, charges about it being inappropriate to use public money for religious schools ignore the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such scholarship programs to be constitutional in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. Parents can choose to spend their scholarships in parochial schools or secular schools, just as older students do with federal Pell grants.

Perhaps the most important thing being overlooked is the experiences of the parents whose children have been able to go to better schools because vouchers afforded them the means to make that choice. Over and over, parents cite their satisfaction with schools that are safer, where students are more respectful and where teachers better meet their children's needs. Politicians like to say they want to do what is best for kids; here's their chance.

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