THE AGREEMENT reached between President Obama and congressional supporters of the District’s federally funded private-school vouchers is pretty modest; disappointing even, to some. But don’t tell that to the parents of new students who will be allowed into the program. The opportunity to send their children to better schools — a choice taken for granted by many Americans, including some who are in Congress and the White House — is something beyond measure.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) announced Monday that the Education Department has agreed to fully implement the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows children from low-income District families to use federal vouchers of up to $12,000 annually to attend private schools. At issue was the Obama administration’s refusal to include new funds for the program in its proposed budget. That move, clearly contrary to the law signed last year by the president reauthorizing the program, essentially caused a cap on enrollment. Not only were new students not being accepted, but there were also worries about renewing scholarships for current students. “I’m pleased that an agreement has been reached to expand the program,” said Mr. Boehner in announcing the agreement.
Lest anyone think it was suddenly warming up to a program it has consistently sought to undermine, the administration issued its own statement, clarifying that an estimated 85 students would be added to the 1,615 children now in the program. The statement by Education Secretary Arne Duncan attributed the increase to the need to ensure sufficient numbers of students for the statistically valid evaluation mandated by Congress. Obviously, the program cannot be completely open-ended, but if there are funds to support larger numbers (1,903 students, for example, were accommodated in 2007-08), the administration should not stand in the way.
Still, no matter how grudging the administration’s concession, it’s encouraging that the program will be able to continue with some growth. It has proved to be enormously popular with D.C. residents, with demand far outstripping the number of vouchers. Moreover, studies have shown its success in boosting graduation rates of its participants, and contrary to the fiction of its critics, it doesn’t drain resources from public education. Giving parents a choice and improving public schools are not mutually exclusive.
Despite this week’s development, we are under no illusions that the battle to preserve this worthwhile program is over. The administration’s churlish response makes clear that it won’t extend itself on behalf of the program, and opponents are intent on getting the Senate to strip funding in fiscal 2013. What shouldn’t get forgotten in this seemingly endless fight are the people with the most at stake: parents who simply want what’s best for their children.