Writing Under the Influence: A Misguided Missive Against School Choice

Joe Brichacek and Chuck Donovan /

Opponents of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program have been losing the war of public opinion since last February when President Barack Obama and the Democrats on Capitol Hill voted to phase out the program. Even liberal political pundits like MSNBC’s Chris Mathews have expressed their outrage over the decision to deny thousands of families in Washington the opportunity to choose a safe and effective school for their children.

Opponents of the scholarships have used every reason they can muster to defend their position.

They argued that the program doesn’t work, despite the fact that the Department of Education released a report earlier this year finding that a student who enters the DCOSP in kindergarten will graduate high school reading two grade levels above their peers in the D.C. Public Schools.

They argued that the local government doesn’t want the program to continue, which is also false. A majority of the D.C. City Council supports the program.

They argue cost, but it’s actually cheaper to educate a child through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The $7,500 voucher is half the amount spent per pupil by the D.C. Public Schools. Also, the taxpayers of D.C. overwhelmingly support the program. A poll conducted over the summer found that seven of 10 D.C. residents support continuation of the program.

Just when it seemed all the reasons to oppose the program were exhausted, D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells and D.C. State Board of Education President Lisa Raymond got a little creative over cocktails.

The Washington Examiner reports:

At a cocktail party on Capitol Hill a week or so ago, D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells found himself chatting with Lisa Raymond, president of the D.C. State Board of Education… When he was on the school board, he had lobbied against vouchers. But when he saw that many poor kids were actually thriving in private schools, he considered organizing the council in favor of vouchers. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and the teachers unions hammered him. His discussion with Raymond sealed the deal, especially when she pointed out that federal funds were going to religious schools, many Catholic, that she argues discriminate against gays and lesbians.

After getting roughed up by Delegate Norton and the teachers unions, Wells decided to flip back and oppose the DCOSP, calling the program “discriminatory.” According to the Washington Post, Wells and Raymond sent a letter to Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) this week claiming that because Catholic institutions do not “provide employee benefits to same-sex spouses,” public funds should not go to their schools (879 of D.C.’s approximately 1,700 vouchers go to the city’s Catholic schools).

The Wells-Raymond letter is likely to be seen by both sides in the debate over the opportunity scholarships as an unwelcome attempt to inject another issue, with attendant religious tension, into a debate that has focused thus far on the well-being of students, whose parents make the choice among public schools, charter schools, and private schools of various kinds. It would be ironic as well if the debate over the definition of traditional marriage, which has included assertions that a redefinition will not hurt existing marriages, instead negatively impacted existing parental choices in education.

Still more disconcerting is the idea that Congress might be persuaded to agree to discriminate against low-income families (the DCOPS enrolls children from families with earnings at or below 185 percent of poverty) by limiting their choices in a demonstrably effective program. As Senator Durbin and others weigh the future of parental choice in education in the nation’s capital, that is the grievous form of discrimination on which they should focus and not on Wells and Raymond’s misguided missive after aperitifs.

To learn more about the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, watch the Heritage Foundation’s new documentary, Let Me Rise: The Struggle to Save School Choice in the Nation’s Capital at www.VoicesOfSchoolChoice.org.