President Obama’s 2013 budget request increases the Department of Education’s budget by 3.5 percent—the largest increase of any domestic agency—to nearly $70 billion, after decades of increases in federal education funding.
Despite this increase, the administration’s budget eliminates funding for the successful DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. The proposed elimination comes on the heels of a long but successful fight to save the program by parents of the more than 1,600 low-income students currently receiving vouchers to attend a private school of choice in the nation’s capital.
“The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has an excellent track record of success in giving underprivileged DC students access to a lasting, quality education,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said in a statement. “While the education establishment in our country sees greater competition in our schools as a threat, in reality it can and should be a foundation for education reform. The bipartisan, grassroots coalition responsible for keeping the Opportunity Scholarship Program alive will continue speaking out, and I’ll be standing alongside them every step of the way.”
In spring 2009, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), inserted language in an omnibus spending bill that restricted any new students from receiving vouchers, meaning the scholarship program would die over time. Congress controls the program’s funding because DC is under its direct control.
Boehner then secured a five-year reauthorization of the voucher program during budget negotiations with President Obama in spring 2011. Now, once again, DC parents are on alert, as the Obama administration puts out another rhetorical marker of its position on school choice.
Virginia Walden Ford, who was instrumental in the program’s creation and implementation in 2004, notes that once again the administration is siding with teachers unions on school choice.
“It was devastating for the families to see included in the president’s 2013 budget the end of DC OSP funding, thus ending the program,” Walden Ford said. “Since the 2012 elections are approaching and the teachers’ unions contribute heavily to the campaigns of many Democrats, including the president, once again targeting the DC OSP is a way of placating [them].”
Increased Graduation Rates, Achievement
The OSP provides vouchers of up to $8,000 for children in grades K-8 and up to $12,000 for high school students. Congressionally mandated evaluations of the program conducted by the U.S. Department of Education show scholarship students’ academic achievement has increased, and their graduation rates have risen significantly.
Notably, 91 percent of D.C. students who used a voucher to attend private school graduated. Graduation rates in DC Public Schools hover around 55 percent.
Proponents also note parental satisfaction and school safety have increased for voucher students. Walden Ford says eliminating funding for the scholarships would be “heartbreaking.”
“The DC OSP is an educational lifeline for the 1,615 children enrolled in the program,” she said. “The children enrolled had previously attended neighborhood public schools that did not serve their educational needs.”
Andrew Campanella, spokesman for National School Choice Week, voiced similar concerns.
“President Obama zeroed out funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program [to gain] an effective budget bargaining tool in a negotiation with the OSP’s chief congressional champion, House Speaker John Boehner,” Campanella said. “The president also, from a political standpoint, likely feels he cannot propose funding for a voucher program, especially in an election year, when many of the special interest groups that support his reelection are school choice opponents.”
Creating Doubt and Uncertainty
Campanella called this position “a shame” because the president says he supports the school choice afforded by charter schools.
“It would be nice to see [the president] publicly recognize the private school choice program that’s making a world of difference for children just blocks from the White House,” he said. “The result of this decision will be so much doubt and uncertainty for parents and children who only want what President Obama and so many other elected officials enjoy—the ability to choose a quality, safe, effective school.”
Under Obama’s budget, the $20 million appropriated annually for the vouchers would go to the DC public school system.