If Vincent Gray really wants to continue reforming D.C.’s public schools, but in a more conciliatory way than that taken by Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee, a good start would be to push for a revival of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
The experimental federal program, which provided vouchers of up to $7,500 to low-income children to attend private schools, was cut off by President Obama early in his term. While the Obama Administration agreed to let students who were already taking advantage of the program continue getting the aid until they finished high school, scholarships that had already been promised to 216 students were rescinded.
A federally mandated evaluation indicated that the use of an Opportunity Scholarship resulted in the equivalent of more than three and a half extra months of learning in terms of measurable progress. Surveys showed that a clear majority of D.C. residents supported the continuation of the program. But because of Obama’s decision, those 216 students, and those who might have followed them into future Opportunity Scholarships, will have to stay in a school system where nearly two-thirds of fourth graders cannot read at a basic level.
Perhaps alluding to the startling fact that nearly a thousand incidents of violent crime were reported in D.C. public schools during one recent school year, federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan said late last year that Opportunity Scholarship students “were safe, and learning and doing well.” An endorsement of the program? Well, no. “We can’t be satisfied with saving 1 or 2 percent of children and letting 98 or 99 percent down.”
This was a bizarre statement, made by a man who was obviously grasping for an explanation for an illogical policy decision. Would a program that reduced unemployment somewhat but not greatly, or that cut the crime rate but did not eliminate crime altogether, be so blithely terminated? Of course not.
The Opportunity Scholarship program also made sense financially. A federal study indicated that the average tuition at voucher schools was $6,620 per year. Compare that to the $26,555 D.C. spent for each public school student in the 2009 fiscal year.
In beating back an effort to restore the program earlier this year, Sen. Byron Dorgan argued that vouchers let more children get out of failing schools. While this sounds like a good thing, the North Dakotan meant it as a bad one, since in the long term it could mean less government funding for public schools and a smaller number of students attending them.
Dorgan’s comments were telling. The primary goal of many opponents of vouchers is to defend the public schooling system, with its big budgets, layers upon layers of bureaucracy, and strong unions. But the government’s interest should be in helping as many children as possible to get the best possible education -- not to back up a particular educational provider.
Those strong unions are the key here. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are among the biggest contributors to Democratic candidates, and they oppose vouchers. In fact, AFT President Randi Weingarten is on record as saying that vouchers are the one area where her organization is not open to negotiation.
Weingarten can’t be faulted too much for this. She is, after all, the head of a union that is dedicated to looking after the interests of public school teachers. No government employees union is fond of privatization. And District residents should be used to being thrown under the bus by Congress.
It’s harder to forgive our own congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, for working to kill the Opportunity Scholarships. Norton’s biggest campaign donor? The AFT.
That same union kicked in about a million dollars to Gray’s campaign, mainly because it wanted Rhee to be terminated. So the chance that Gray will press Congress to revive the Opportunity Scholarships seems slim. But there may be some hope.
Former D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who is now chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a fellow with the Center for Educational Reform, was instrumental in turning Fenty on to the issue of education reform. But he is also close to Gray, and his organization vocally supports taxpayer-funded vouchers.
Last weekend, Chavous wrote on the Washington Post website that the change in mayors in D.C. could “provide the impetus we need for something lacking in the education reform movement in America: a true revolution.” While Chavous never mentioned Gray by name, he said “many believe that the District’s quest for change has lacked a soul -- that it has been a top-down, elite-directed effort” -- but that change must continue.
“In our national education reform movement,” Chavous wrote, “the people have yet to weigh in, but they are increasingly becoming fed up with the status quo. The masses intuitively know that what we do in our schools largely doesn’t work for many kids, yet they aren’t engaged in the fight for change.”
Could that change include a return to the D.C. voucher program? And could Gray be an unexpected leader in that change? Those 216 students -- and many others -- will be watching.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC
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