On the morning of September 8 school choice advocates and education leaders gathered in front of the U.S. Department of Education building in an act of civil disobedience to show support for the endangered DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.
The group of education leaders stood nose-to-nose with Federal Protective Services officers for approximately 30 minutes to draw attention to the plight of the 216 low-income children whose scholarships were rescinded this year.
Among the protesters were Kevin Chavous, a former District city councilman; Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice; Dr. Howard Fuller, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO); BAEO President Gerard Robinson; the Rev. Anthony Motley, a community activist; and Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. The protest took place just hours before President Obama’s televised speech to schoolchildren across the country.
Although none of the protesters were arrested, they believe their act of civil disobedience provided a symbolic gesture calling attention to the plight of children in underperforming schools in the District.
Ignoring the Question
In a press release issued by BAEO, Chavous stated that although he wasn’t arrested, “this administration needs to act immediately and remove the handcuffs on DC kids who are stuck in failing, underperforming schools.”
“I hope that just as our president speaks to these schoolchildren today that he would take the time to talk to some DC residents and children who have been in this program,” Chavous told supporters after the standoff. “I have the audacity of hoping that if he talks to these people, he will see what we see—that each and every child is entitled to equal access to the American dream.”
Though the event garnered significant attention from local and national media outlets, neither Obama nor U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made any comments about it or the future of the voucher program in the press coverage they received that day.
The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program began in 2004 and is the only federally funded school voucher program in the nation. This year 1,715 students received scholarships to attend a private school of their choice. In April, however, the Obama administration sent letters to 216 families whose children had been awarded scholarships, saying they had been rescinded.
“Our Civil Disobedience Protest was to show support for the 216 low-income District students who, because of actions by President Obama and Secretary Duncan, were refused entry into the schools of their parents’ choice for the 2009-2010 school year, and to bring attention to the fight for the reauthorization of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Walden Ford said. “My colleagues joined DC parents and supporters and myself to send a clear message that the education reform community is serious about protecting the well-being and educational futures of low-income children.
“We want President Obama and Secretary Duncan to face the cameras and explain to DC families why they seek to end one of the most successful federally funded education programs. The way this administration has treated these children is deplorable,” she concluded.
Fuller said he took part in the protest “because I believe you have to stand up for kids and families in DC. This program provides the administration with an opportunity to support what works. It gives them an opportunity to move away from political orthodoxy. This program clearly works for families and the community. This is a time when the administration can walk the talk.”
The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009, introduced in March, included language ending the scholarship program unless it is fully reauthorized by both Congress and the DC City Council. In June a majority of City Council members sent a letter to the Obama administration voicing their support for the program’s continuation.
Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a research assistant in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.