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Step up for D.C. vouchers

Tuesday, March 23, 2010; A18

PARENTS LOVE IT. Students benefit from it. But neither the White House nor most Democrats in Congress had the backbone to support a unique program that provides vouchers to low-income D.C. families in search of better educational opportunities. Now the question is whether D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) -- who has made education his priority -- has the guts his party leaders lack and will seek to save this worthy program.

The Senate last week all but decreed the demise of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program when it rejected, in a 55 to 42 vote, a measure that would have permitted the enrollment of new students by reauthorizing the program for another five years. Introduced by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the measure was vigorously opposed by the teachers unions. Hence, only three Democrats -- Mark Warner of Virginia, Dianne Feinstein of California and Bill Nelson of Florida -- joined Republicans in supporting the program that has, since 2004, allowed hundreds of needy children to attend private schools instead of low-performing public schools. In an era of hyper-partisanship, these few Democrats deserve to be remembered for putting the interests of children above party ideology and fundraising. The willingness of three other local Democrats -- James Webb of Virginia and Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland -- to deprive poor children of choice deserves to be remembered, too.

The animus toward this tiny, clearly successful program is not grounded in logic. "The real goal of education," Ms. Feinstein said, sensibly enough, "ought to be to provide a number of different choices for youngsters so you can see where they learn best and then enable them to be in that situation." That's supposed to be the philosophy of Mr. Obama's Education Department, too, which purports to want to reward programs that work. The program has been subject to rigorous scientific study, and preliminary evaluations have shown academic gains and student improvement. But the Obama administration had shut the door on new students and didn't lift a hand to rally support for its continuation.

"What is everybody scared of?" Ms. Feinstein asked. Sadly, the answer is no secret: Teachers unions have an outsized influence on the Democratic Party. The unions fear that if objective analysis rather than political muscle is allowed to shape education policy, traditional public schools that are more frequently union shops would lose out. Only the children would be better off.

Is there any hope? The Obama administration is pressing the District government to manage the program for current scholarship students, who supposedly are going to be supported until they graduate; the nonprofit group that has been running the program is pulling out. We hope Mr. Fenty not only will agree but will allow new students into the program. His schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, has argued against cutting off this opportunity while public schools are years away from being able to provide all students with proper educations. This would be no financial burden: The voucher program has been able to educate students for less per pupil than charter or traditional public schools have.

No doubt Mr. Fenty is being counseled on the political dangers of going where President Obama and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), among others, fear to tread. Such arguments have never stood in his way when it comes to promoting school change. We hope he gives serious thought to stepping up one more time.

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