During my eighteen years in Congress, I only received one phone call from Air Force One. President Clinton called to tell me he would veto the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1998, a school choice measure I had worked on with Sen. Joe Lieberman. The president said he couldn’t turn his back on the National Education Association, the powerful teachers union, because it was standing by him during the lead-up to his impeachment.
Washington, D.C. schools are among the most violent and lowest-performing schools the country. Congress focused on the D.C. schools because of the severity of the problem and our oversight of the District’s operations. States and school districts across the country face a tough challenge in trying to improve performance on tighter budgets, and they can learn lessons from the nation’s capital. They need to do more with less, and school choice remains the best option in spite of union opposition.
While we were fighting for school choice in Washington, I also raised money to provide private scholarships for several dozen children. That hands-on experience showed me how much programs like this mean to children and their parents. In almost every case where we managed to secure a scholarship – none of which were full rides – the mother would take a second job to raise her share of the tuition. There was real sacrifice, and the kids were better off for it.
Congress eventually passed another school choice bill for D.C., which President Bush signed in 2004. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) created vouchers for D.C. students to apply toward private schools. The program was wildly popular and concerned parents finally had a way to get their children out of dangerous schools that were failing their kids.
However, during his first six months in office and under pressure from the NEA, President Obama moved to phase out the program. Never mind the students using vouchers had a 91-percent graduation rate compared to a 70-percent graduation rate among students who were denied vouchers. The unions don’t like school choice, so neither do Democrats.
Those of us who’ve actually been involved with children who have received the opportunity to go to the school of their parents’ choice have witnessed true transformation. When young people have a chance to break free from a bad school, the vast majority really take maximum advantage of the opportunity.
At a House subcommittee hearing on March 1, students and mothers of students testified in defense of the OSP. “This program has worked, is still working, and will continue to work,” Ronald Holassie, a high-school senior who received an OSP scholarship. “Now being a young adult, taking on my own responsibilities, I have certainly been greatly influenced by this program. I can look back and credit this program for my success.”
Sheila Jackson, a single mother whose daughter receives an OSP scholarship, credited the program with being “the difference between her having to attend schools that are not safe and are still underperforming to her now attending a school that meets her needs and where I know she is safe.”
There is unfortunate opposition from Republicans and conservatives, who say the government should not be involved in school choice initiatives, that we should leave it to the private sector. It’s true that organizations like the Children’s Scholarship Fund help thousands of kids escape schools that are failing them. However, while private money helps pay for private schooling, the failing public schools are still rewarded with taxpayers’ money. School choice creates incentives for public schools to improve that private charity simply does not create.
Speaker John Boehner has indicated the House GOP’s budget restores funding for the D.C. scholarship program. Pennsylvania lawmakers are making progress on a school choice bill. States like Wisconsin, which face serious challenges over education funding, are or should be exploring the option. It will likely bring protest and opposition from the unions that see school choice as a threat, but lawmakers must stand up to them.
The great hypocrisy of politicians who oppose school choice is that most claim allegiance to a party and philosophy that so often claims the moral high ground as defenders of the disadvantaged. Yet they callously oppose an opportunity to provide a better educational choice for children because they have a large constituency in unions. If education policy is truly about providing our children with the best opportunities possible, we ought to be enacting school choice everywhere we can.
Former Rep. Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who served as the House Majority Leader from 1995-2003, is the chairman of FreedomWorks and co-author of the book “Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto."