Despite strong bipartisan support, the Senate last week defeated an amendment by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), to reauthorize and expand the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. The legislation, which was attached to a bill authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, was defeated 55-42 in a floor vote on March 16.
The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program provided financial aid for low-income residents of Washington, DC to attend the private school of their choice. The school choice program, which once had a budget of $18 million, provides a $7,500 scholarship to about 1,300 children from homes with incomes below $25,000.
As a result of cuts by the Obama administration, the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that oversees the DC scholarship program, announced earlier this year it would close its doors on June 30.
School choice advocates vowed to press on with their efforts to save the $18 million scholarship program. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Robert Byrd (D-WV), George Voinovich (R-OH), and John Ensign (R-NV), joined Lieberman in cosponsoring the legislation.
‘Give Me a Break’
During the March 16 Senate floor debate, a visibly emotional Voinovich criticized the Obama administration’s “baffling hostility” toward the program. Voinovich took issue with White House claims that program funding was cut because of a decline in participation.
“Give me a break,” said Voinovich. “I would say to the president, it’s difficult to participate in a program that’s closed to new applicants. Participation levels are down because the Secretary of Education rescinded … more than 200 scholarships to deserving children for the current school year.”
The Ohio senator, who is not seeking reelection and plans to retire this year, also blasted the National Education Association. The nation’s largest teachers union endorsed Voinovich in 1998 but withdrew its support after he supported the DC scholarship program in 2004.
Voinovich urged his colleagues to “stand up” against the pressure of the unions.
He said, “Why can’t they stand up, okay, and say: ‘This is a little bitty program that’s helping a bunch of kids in the District of Columbia?’ Give me a break! Why shouldn’t I support it? Why shouldn’t I support it?”
‘We Can’t Give Up’
A Washington DC-based grassroots organizer says although she was disappointed by the outcome of the vote, she was heartened by the Senate debate.
“I cried when Sen. Voinovich gave his wonderful speech in support of our kids and this amendment,” said Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice, who led the effort to bring the school-choice program to Washington in 2004. “I got a note from Sen. Lieberman after the vote saying he wasn’t giving up. If he’s not giving up, I’m not giving up, As long as we have legislators who care about the children, we can’t give up.”
A new media blitz, including promotions on metro DC buses, is underway to “keep the program in the public’s eye,” Ford said.
The campaign will use the themes developed in Let Me Rise, a film produced by the Heritage Foundation about the future of school choice in the nation’s capital and nationwide.
Evidence of Program’s Success
Patrick J. Wolf, the U.S. Education Department’s principal researcher for a congressionally mandated study of the program, says the scholarships have improved student performance in Washington, DC.
“The DC voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s official education research arm so far,” Wolf said. Participating students perform better on average in reading tests thanks to the experimental school choice program, Wolf said.
The program is popular with DC residents and attracts more applicants than the available seats. About 9,000 families have applied for the program’s scholarships. An annual lottery determines which families may participate in the program. Nearly all scholarship recipients are black or Latino.
Obama Admin Slashed Funds
President Obama slashed $3 million from the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program’s 2010-11 budget—nearly one-third of the program’s $12.4 million budget the previous fiscal year. The White House indicated future budgets would contain no further requests for funding.
The President had promised children currently enrolled in the program could graduate, but Ford says Obama’s statements are “not straightforward.”
“He said current students could finish, to keep us off his back, and pacified the teachers unions by saying the program wasn’t going to expand,” she said. Obama, who attended private schools on scholarship between the sixth and 12th grade, has disappointed many DC parents, Ford added.
“They had so much faith in this president—they kept telling me the president will save this program, he understands,” Ford said. “He could have gotten so much goodwill by saving this program.”
Looking to Midterm Elections
As a result of the Senate vote, school choice may become an issue in November’s midterm congressional elections.
Rand Paul, a Republican who holds double-digit polling leads over Republican primary opponents and potential Democratic adversaries in the forthcoming election to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), expressed his support for the DC program.
“Making government schools compete on quality of education should be something we all can agree on, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat,” Paul said. “I will always support school choice and voucher programs in the U.S. Senate.”
Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Video: “Sen. Voinovich on DC Opportunity Scholarship”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXuraxtmh-s
Let Me Rise, 30-minute film about the future of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program and school choice nationwide: http://www.heritage.org/Multimedia/Video/2009/10/Let-Me-Rise