DEL. ELEANOR Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) trumpeted the sweeping spending bill that passed Congress this week as a “major victory ” for the District. We are glad that efforts to nullify a local antidiscrimination law were staved off and that there are increased funds for the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program. However, the failure to include a measure that would have safeguarded millions of dollars in funding for public education in the city is both disappointing and exasperating. For that, the District can thank its supposed allies on the hill, the Democrats.
Left by the wayside — despite pleas from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) — was a five-year reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that allows children from low-income families to attend private schools with federal vouchers. The program was created in 2004 as part of a three-pronged investment in D.C. public education that funds the vouchers and provides extra allocations of federal dollars to the public school system and public charter schools. Indeed, the three-sector federal approach has brought more than $600 million to D.C. schools, with traditional public schools receiving $239 million, public charter schools $195 million and the voucher program $183 million. The vouchers have allowed thousands of students, predominantly minorities, to attend private schools. Parents of scholarship students have extolled the benefits of school choice and the positive impact of better schooling on their children’s lives. Interest in the program, according to its administrators, has never been higher.
None of that, of course, seems to matter to teachers unions that are fearful of the competition posed by vouchers or to the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate who knuckled under to their pressure. The departure of John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as House speaker robbed the program of its most ardent — and powerful — champion.
Thankfully, the current authorization for funding doesn’t expire until the end of this fiscal year, so there will be an opportunity to reauthorize funding before then. The House has passed such a bill and one is pending before a Senate committee. In the event the program isn’t reauthorized, Congress could fund it through appropriations. Let’s hope that happens, not only for the sake of the children helped by this worthwhile scholarship program but also for the students in traditional and charter public schools who benefit from the infusion of extra federal aid.