This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on a bill that would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), the flagship school choice program in the nation’s capital.
Since 2004, this program has provided low-income schoolchildren in Washington, D.C., which ranks 51st in the nation in standardized test scores, with scholarships worth $7,500 each to attend private schools of their choice. However, despite the program’s popularity and success—including significantly increased graduation rates and improved reading scores—political maneuvers have managed to jeopardize the future of this program and, along with it, the futures of hundreds of children in the nation’s capital.
The new legislation, introduced by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R–OH) and known as the SOAR Act, would not only reauthorize the scholarship program but also expand it to give more children the opportunity for school choice.
While many legislators support school choice programs like DCOSP, many others (mostly congressional Democrats) continue to fight it. Yet, ironically, many Members of Congress have benefited from school choice themselves—either personally or through their own children—while denying D.C. students the same benefit.
For example, Senator Richard Durbin (D–IL), who successfully inserted language into legislation in 2009 to phase out the DCOSP, not only attended private school himself but also sends his children to private school. Moreover, a Heritage Foundation study found that nearly 40 percent of the Members of the 111th Congress sent a child to private school. Nationally, only 11 percent of all American students are enrolled in private school.
And let’s not forget that President Obama himself was a scholarship recipient as a child. This is what gave him the opportunity to attend the prestigious Punahou School in Hawaii. On top of this, his daughters attend the upscale Sidwell Friends School in D.C. If he had no choice but to send his girls to public school, they would be students of the Francis-Stevens Education Campus, where only 45 percent of students meet proficiency levels in reading, and 40 percent meet them in math. (While these proficiency levels are low, sadly, they are much higher than those at many other D.C. public schools.)
Additionally, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attended private school himself, and when he came from Chicago to D.C. after being appointed Secretary, his family chose to live in Arlington, Virginia, “where good schools are assumed.”
But how many families have the kind of options for their children that Obama and Duncan do?
Unfortunately, today school choice is mostly limited to those who have means. And if DCOSP is eliminated, school choice will be even more limited. Yet for DCOSP students and so many others like them, school choice has meant not only greater control over their education but, more importantly, greater control over their futures.
Instead of closing the doors of opportunity for children, as the Obama Administration and some Members of Congress have attempted to do these last two years, now is the time to open it wider for more of the nation’s students.