Testimony: New U.S. Department of Education Head Opposes Washington, DC Scholarship Program

Published March 28, 2016

Under questioning from lawmakers during U.S. Senate confirmation hearings, John King Jr., President Barack Obama’s education secretary appointee, acknowledged he opposes the Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), a school choice voucher program providing at-risk students with tuition assistance created by the DC School Choice Incentive Act of 2003.

In February, King, formerly the commissioner of education for the State of New York, was questioned by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) about his stance on reauthorization of the DCOSP, which expires this year.

“I do not personally believe that vouchers are a scalable solution to the equity and excellence challenge and prefer the route of public school choice, but [I] certainly respect your position on it,” King replied to Scott’s questioning, indicating his opposition to extending the program.

In March, King’s nomination was confirmed by the Senate.

‘Infusing Equity and Excellence’

Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, says school choice is the answer to ensuring children have a chance to succeed in life.

“School choice is both scalable and a major part of the answer to infusing equity and excellence in American education,” Burke said. “For a fraction of what is spent in DC Public Schools, where revenue per pupil tops $29,400 annually, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has had resounding results, not the least of which is a 91 percent graduation rate for participating students.”

Burke says the scholarship program is an economical way to help children achieve success in life.

“The DCOSP achieves that success at roughly $12,000 per scholarship,” Burke said. “There is proof-positive that the DCOPS works: The program has shown a 91 percent high school graduation rate, while the DC public schools have only reached around 56 percent. It’s hard to square that circle when we know empirically, according to a random assignment evaluation published by the U.S. Department of Education itself, that [DCOSP] improves academic outcomes for participants and significantly improves graduation rates.”

Opportunity, Options for All

Burke says Obama, whose daughters have been enrolled in and benefited from private schools, should not force disadvantaged children to remain in failing government schools.

“No one should begrudge the president for sending his children to a school that works best for them,” Burke said. “But the administration should not try to shutter a scholarship program in the nation’s capital that affords the same opportunity to poor children in the District.”

Matt Frendeway, communications director of the American Federation for Children, says King should rethink his opinion on school choice.

“I think it’s tremendously important that the secretary of education recognizes school choice, both in terms of private choice and public choice, whether it’s one public school to another or one public school to a public charter school,” Frendeway said. “That’s because ultimately, choice is about empowering parents, often those with lesser means.” 

Frendeway says giving more educational options to parents and children benefits everyone.

“It’s disappointing that Sec. King, while he might be open to some public charter schools, doesn’t recognize the full host of options available for kids. Options allow education to meet the individual needs of every child,” Frendeway said. “The system should work for the kids, not the kids working for the system.”

Andrea Dillon ([email protected]) writes from Holly Springs, North Carolina.