I consider myself fortunate to have been able to attend one of the best private high schools in Washington DC, something I was able to do because my parents had enough money to afford it. That education put me on a path of opportunity, which led to great internships, a superior college and better jobs and earning potential.
For the last five years that road of opportunity has been open to a select group of DC public school students through the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher system which provided $7500 a year to 1700 kids, giving them a chance escape from the failing DC public schools and attend a charter school or a private school in the area. The DC public schools are rated third worst in the nation, but with a voucher, the door to a superior education was open to them.
Now that door is going to be closed; kids who were given a chance to succeed, which poverty and disadvantage had denied them, are going to be thrust back into a world of gangs, drugs and violence, where learning is almost impossible. In the new budget, Congress has withdrawn its support for the voucher program and it is likely the DC board of education will shut the program down as a result.
In just five years, the success of the Opportunity Scholarship Program has been remarkable and students have shown substantial improvement on standardized tests and in college placement. These vouchers let students leave behind a system where only 59% of students even graduate and only a fifth of those end up going to college. DC area private schools graduate close to 100% of their students and almost all of those graduates go on to college. In fact a quarter of them go to one of the top 10 colleges in the nation. DC charter schools also perform well, graduating 91% of their students and sending 83% of those graduates to college, almost 4 times the college placement rate of the DC public schools.
Even though the average cost per student in the DC public school system is close to $24,000 a year, the vouchers are limited to no more than $7500. The rest of the money goes back into the system to improve public education for those who don’t receive vouchers. That voucher is enough to pay tuition at a charter school and when combined with private scholarships it helps a lot of the students go to a first class private school. DC school costs are partially underwritten by the federal government, so we all have a stake in this program.
There are grassroots movements in virtually every major urban area where parents and community leaders — mostly of African-American or Hispanic heritage — are working to bring a program like this to their communities. They want to have more of a say in how education dollars are spent and to let competition drive improvement in education for everyone. They believe that the person most qualified to choose the best sort of school for an individual child is that child’s parent.
A Senate hearing on Wednesday concluded that despite the fact that the DC voucher system was written out of the recently passed budget, it was a proven success and ought to be continued. President Obama reassured the families of the 1700 students currently using vouchers that he would see that they were at least able to keep attending their current schools until they graduate. He said that he would put aside politics and support solutions. Yet the teachers unions and the powerful education lobby are campaigning hard against this voucher system because they are afraid that it will set a precedent and encourage other school districts to open up educational alternatives for their students.
The DC voucher system is a success which we cannot afford to abandon. If you pay taxes and care about the future of America’s youth, contact your Congressman and Senators and encourage them to support continued funding for the Opportunity Scholarship Program.