Policy has real-life consequences—a fact that has been especially true for schoolchildren in Washington, D.C. For low-income schoolchildren in the nation’s capital, the Obama Administration’s opposition to school choice is taking its toll.
In 2009, the future of the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) was uncertain. Due in large part to Senator Dick Durbin (D–IL)—who inserted poison-pill language into an omnibus spending bill that year—the OSP was required to secure a full congressional reauthorization by a then Democratic-controlled Congress, a near impossibility in an era when, sadly, voucher is still a dirty word to too many policymakers on the left.
Over that time period, President Obama stood idly by, watching as the program was placed on life support.
After much strong-arming—and a heroic effort by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R–OH) and Senator Joe Lieberman (I–CT)—Obama signed a five-year reauthorization of the voucher program into law in the spring of 2011. Low-income D.C. families once again felt certain of their opportunity to pursue an education at a private school that best met their children’s needs.
But despite signing a five-year reauthorization, Obama then proceeded to zero-out funding for the law he had signed only a year earlier, creating another thick cloud of uncertainty for the future of school choice in the nation’s capital.
Families were unsure about whether new scholarships would be available, and existing participants even had doubts about how long they would be able to continue learning at their private schools. That uncertainty is probably chiefly to blame for a slight decrease in the number of voucher participants this year.
According to the D.C. Trust, the non-profit that oversees the administration of the voucher program, 1,584 children are attending private schools in D.C. thanks to vouchers this year, down from 1,615 for the 2011–2012 school year. Those numbers could continue to grow, however, as families sometimes make the decision to enroll in a participating private school midway through the school year.
The American Federation of Children also blames Department of Education interference on the enrollment drop:
The D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation (Trust), which administers the program, received nearly 1,500 new applications for the 2012–2013 school year, despite being told not to accept applications after March 31 of this year. In addition, the Trust was not given permission to hold scholarship lotteries for new applicants until July of this year.
The lower enrollment numbers are the result of a year-long effort by the U.S. Department of Education to limit participation in the OSP.
While enrollment could reach or even exceed last year’s figures over the next few months, another regrettable outcome of the reduction is that there is not a large enough number of participants to conduct the congressionally mandated evaluation of the program. The most recent evaluation found a statistically significant increase in graduation for D.C. voucher students, with an impressive 91 percent of students graduating high school.
The Administration’s indifference—and at times outright antagonism—toward the voucher program has had real consequences. But if demand is any indication (there was a 60 percent increase in voucher use from the 2009–2010 school year to the 2011–2012 school year), this decline is an anomaly, the result of policymakers interested in staying in the good graces of the education unions.
To learn more about the life-changing impact the D.C. voucher program has had on children, watch Let Me Rise.