Ensuring School Choice: If Arne Duncan Can't Do It, Then Yes, We Can

As school starts this week for students across the country, my heart goes out to the 216 students who had their offers of participating in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program revoked last spring by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. 1,700 students have benefited from the program over the years. These 216 students were accepted into the program earlier this year only to find later that their scholarships were being rescinded.

The D.C. voucher program makes economic sense both for the students involved and the school district at large. Students in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program receive $7,500 per year to go to the school of their choice. Some may argue this will take away money that should go into bettering public schools, right? Actually, D.C. public schools spend over $14,400 per student each year.

This means that each student that gets a voucher actually brings almost $7,000 in savings to the District which can then be spent on other students. So, by revoking the scholarships of this year’s recipients, D.C. schools will have to spend $1.5 million more to maintain the status quo—and remember, 80% of D.C. schools haven’t met “adequate yearly progress” standards under No Child Left Behind.

As parents and children protested last Thursday in front of the Department of Education, Secretary Duncan told the Washington Post that “the long-term goal is to find ways to help every child” in D.C. public schools. In the long term, removing the program completely, as teachers unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association wished, will ultimately cost D.C. schools $13.8 million annually and will cost children subjected to the DC public school system even more.

The students who currently participate in the program have shown overall increases in reading scores. They are from families who truly can’t afford private schools: the average annual income of families with students in the program is $23,000 for a family of four. And each student who participates in the program directly helps the programs at their old public schools receive more funding.

Low income families can’t afford to move to cities such as Arlington, Virginia, or Silver Spring, Bethesda or Potomac, Maryland. They can’t send their kids to private schools like National Cathedral School or St. Albans. They are forced into schools that offer low standards and even lower expectations of success. Less than 50% of students graduate on time in D.C. public schools, and more than 30% don’t graduate at all. Compare that with an extremely low drop-out rate of students in the Opportunity Scholarship Program—as a mom, I can’t imagine how the U.S. Department of Education can refuse these kids a better chance in the world.

President Obama said last spring that “our schools don’t just need more resources; they need more reform”. But reform should be predicated on choice. We should be expanding programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides parents with the opportunity to send their children to schools with a proven ability to educate all children.

But, as Erick has suggested, if the Democrats can’t see the importance of school choice, perhaps Republicans in Congress should consider demonstrating that they are truly the party of Frederick Douglass and the raise the necessary funds privately.