Mayor Gray is misguided on school vouchers

Thursday, February 17, 2011; 8:35 PM

IF D.C. MAYOR Vincent C. Gray isn't careful, he could well argue the District out of $60 million in federal education dollars. Testifying before a Senate committee against the voucher program that enables low-income students to attend private schools, Mr. Gray (D) was warned that extra money for the city's traditional and public schools was likely conditioned on congressional reauthorization of vouchers. Money alone isn't reason for Mr. Gray to change his mind, but given that District children benefit from the program and that parents are desperate for the choice it affords, it's unfathomable that he is opposing this worthwhile program.

Mr. Gray was among those who appeared Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs as it considered legislation to extend the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, including an important provision to allow new students to be enrolled. Mr. Gray said that efforts should be focused on improving public schools, that Congress was inappropriately intruding into local affairs and that D.C. parents have enough education choices, given the number of flourishing charter schools and the public school reforms starting to take hold.

Those assertions were quite convincingly contradicted by other speakers. Former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous recounted how, as chairman of the council's education committee, he worked with "hundreds, probably thousands" of parents to persuade Congress to establish the program in 2003. "To say that this program was imposed on the District of Columbia is to rewrite history and in one broad brush white-out the hard work of these parents. Quite frankly, it's offensive," he said. Also powerful was the testimony of council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) that, while initially uncomfortable with the program, he couldn't look a working mother in the eye and tell her the only choice she had for her children was a failing school. "The issue for me in this debate comes down to one question: Can the [scholarship program] increase the number of quality educational options for low-income families in the District? I believe that the answer is yes," he said.

Certainly Mr. Gray is correct about the District's success in nurturing successful charter schools and in finally bringing improvement to its troubled schools, but there are waiting lists not only for charters but also for out-of-boundary placements to some of the city's better traditional public schools. And, as he was reminded Wednesday, D.C. schools are still among the nation's worst. Why should parents have to wait two, three, five years or more before their children are assured a quality education? By no means is the Opportunity Scholarship Program a cure-all, but it has the ability to help some children - those who are most disadvantaged - right now. And, as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) pointed out, it doesn't come at the expense of public education. Indeed, the three-sector approach has in fact pumped millions of additional dollars into traditional public schools and charters.

We don't like the fact that voucher supporters, mainly House Republicans who have made the program an educational priority, seem willing to yank that money if the voucher program is not continued. But, by the same token, Mr. Lieberman made a good point when he asked Mr. Gray, "What's the harm?" in accepting that money in exchange for helping a small number of students get a better education. No harm at all; only gain.

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