As President Obama's kids are settling in at Sidwell Friends, one of the best private schools in the nation, Congress is preparing to pass a budget which takes away funding from Washington DC's Opportunity Scholarship Program, which makes it possible for 1700 kids a year — mostly African-American — to escape from the worst public school system in the country and attend a charter school or a private school, thus giving them a chance at a better future.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program is only four years old and has barely had a chance to prove itself, but it stands little chance of continuing when the federal funds backing it are eliminated from the budget by Democratic legislators eager to keep campaign contributions from the teachers unions flowing. Teachers unions don't like any kind of program which gives kids a chance to escape from government-run schools, and even this relatively modest voucher program is too much of a threat to be allowed to survive now that they have some clout. The funding was in the budget coming out of the last session, but has now been removed and is unlikely to be added back in with Democrats in control.
The program provides $7500 vouchers to about 1700 DC public school students chosen by lottery with which they can change schools, attend a charter school or attend an area private school. Every student who uses a voucher releases more money for other students who stay behind in public school because their voucher is underwritten by the federal government and is considerably less than the $14,400 per student spent by the DC public school system, which has the sad distinction of being the one of the most expensive and lowest performing school systems in the nation. DC ranks last in the nation in math and reading, 4th lowest in SAT scores and 6th worst in graduation rate,
Perhaps most important and almost always overlooked by those doing studies on voucher programs is how many graduates go to college and the quality of the colleges they end up attending. In the DC public school system only 59% of high school students even graduate. Of those only 36% have completed the course work necessary to qualify to go to a 4-year college degree program. Only 52.8% of those who take the SAT in DC go to college. Of those, 86.2% attend in-state colleges, which in the overwhelming majority of cases means that they attend the University of the District of Columbia. UDC offers 4-year degrees, but is basically comparable to a decent community college. That means that of entering freshmen, only about a fifth will end up going to college and most of those will go to a second-rate institution.
In comparison, at the top private schools in DC like St. Albans, National Cathedral and Sidwell Friends, virtually all of the students graduate and about 99% of those graduates go on to college and more than 25% of those graduates go to one of the top 10 colleges in the country — like Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Princeton and Stanford. In other words, the private schools send more graduates to the very best colleges in the world than even manage to get to college at all after graduating a public high-school in DC.
Now admittedly, the $7500 which this program provides to students isn't enough by itself to pay for a private school, which costs $15,000 to $30,000 a year. But all of these private schools also have endowments for scholarships, some of them quite substantial and targeting kids from the poorer parts of DC. On average, for every 3 students who come with a $7500 voucher, another student is able to attend one of these schools for free; between vouchers and private endowments a lot more poor students can attend some of the best private schools in the nation than could have otherwise.
In addition, these vouchers can also be used at charter schools in DC, whose performance is much closer to private schools than public schools. DC charter schools graduate 91% of their students — almost double the rate at DC public schools. 83% of those students attend college; close to three times the number of DC public school students going to college. As a group, in 2007, DC charter school graduates received $11 million in college scholarship awards — a vital advantage when so many of them come from an underprivileged background.
High school graduation and the chance to go to college can make all the difference in the world for a poor kid from the inner city. It massively reduces the chance that they will be involved in crime, reduces their chance of using drugs, more than doubles their long-term earning potential and even raises up others in the community around them. It also substantially reduces their chance of a violent death. DC has a rate of violent crime which is three times the national average, and its poor neighborhoods are among the poorest in the nation. Unemployment is high, drug use is widespread in the poor communities and for many there is no way out. Kids born into this environment are born doomed.
Access to better educational opportunities is the key to saving children from poverty and social disadvantage. A public school system which sends only a small fraction of its graduates to college and is rated third worst in the nation is not providing that opportunity. But for almost 2000 students a year, the Opportunity Scholarship Program does offer hope of a much better education and a very good chance at a degree from a good four-year college. By taking this program away, Democrats in congress are reminding us that they don't really care about helping the most needy in our society. They just want to keep getting their votes, while pandering to the special interests for whom keeping the people poor and undereducated is politically advantageous.