Film Shows Struggle to Save School Choice in the Nation’s Capital

Published December 18, 2009

The Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation has released a new, 30-minute documentary, Let Me Rise: The Struggle to Save School Choice in the Nation’s Capital, about the families fighting to save the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in Washington, DC.

The DC OSP provides scholarships of up to $7,500 for low-income children in Washington, DC to attend a private school of their choice. To date, more than 3,000 children have received scholarships.

In March however, President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 (H.R. 1105), which contained provisions phasing out the successful scholarship program by prohibiting any new students from receiving scholarships unless the OSP is both authorized by the DC City Council and fully reauthorized by Congress. In April, 216 students who had been awarded scholarships for the 2009-10 school year had them rescinded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Criminal Acts

Juan Williams, a political analyst for Fox News and National Public Radio, narrates the film, which was released in November.

“Over the course of my career covering Washington, I’ve seen many political fights, debates. And none was more disappointing to me than what happened to the students of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2009,” Williams states in the film’s opening. “Powerful special interests—defenders of the status quo—saw to it that the lives of 1,700 low-income students and their parents got caught in the political crosshairs of day-to-day partisanship.”

DC students have some of the worst academic performance in the nation, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). On the most recent assessments, 52 percent of District eighth graders scored below basic in reading, and 60 percent scored below basic in math. School violence is also prevalent in DC public schools, with 912 incidents of violent crime on campus reported by the DC Metropolitan Police Department during the 2007-08 school year.

Let Me Rise illustrates how the DC OSP has provided students with a lifeline out of the underperforming and unsafe public school system.

“At the end of the day it’s not about the politics. It’s about that family,” declares former DC City Council member Kevin Chavous in the video. “It is shameful for us to stop something that we know will help them save their children.”

More Than Words

Jennifer Marshall, the Heritage Foundation’s director of domestic policy studies, said the film was made to “call this country back to its ideals when it comes to education” by putting a human face on the debate over school choice.

“Conservative policy is first and foremost about people—not systems, not programs, not dollars and cents. School choice isn’t just an academic debate. School choice isn’t just an issue for [the children] featured in this film. It’s changing their lives and opening up a future they never thought they’d have,” Marshall said.

“To hear from students who are trying to do the right thing but are trapped in dangerous and ineffective public schools is to be astonished and outraged once again that this is happening regularly in cities all across our country,” she added. “America has so much more promise to offer, and that promise should be open to all her people.”

Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice, agreed. “It is shameful that in 2009, inequality persists in our nation’s school systems, trapping many low-income families in unsafe and ineffective public schools,” she said. “Families in the District of Columbia don’t want to wait for the next reform plan to roll around, [a plan] which may or may not benefit their children. The DC Opportunity is helping children right now to get the kind of education that best suits their needs, the kind of education they deserve.”

To watch Let Me Rise, visit

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a research assistant in domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.