Here is good news, for once, from the world of Washington politics.
On Monday the Democrats in the White House and the Republicans in the House announced a deal to extend the Washington, DC vouchers program for low-income parents who want an alternative to the city’s troubled public school system.
The small school voucher plan in the Capital started in 2004, when Republicans controlled the White House and the Congress. It is an effort to study whether vouchers improve educational outcomes for poor children. Since President Obama came to office, with support from teachers unions who oppose vouchers, he has tried to phase out the voucher experiment – providing money only for students previously enrolled and not for any newcomers.
But last year as part of the debt ceiling negotiation, House Speaker John Boehner, who has personally championed this program with no obvious political pay-off in sight, got President Obama to agree to extend the program. And on Monday the president, Boehner and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) agreed to put money for the program in the 2013 federal budget. It will allow for about 100 new students to join the 1,615 young people already in the program.
It is a small victory. But like the tiny mustard seed hailed in the Bible for its power to grow to great size, this small victory has great potential. Anything that gives America’s poor parents some help in lifting their children out of failing schools is a victory deserving of a parade.
After last year’s deal between the speaker and the president, 1,615 students enrolled in the D.C. program. That is almost 60 percent more than the previous year as more parents [average income of $22,736] try to get their children into the program. Parents know that a June 2010 report from the Department of Education stated that 82 percent of students offered scholarships graduated from parochial and private high schools, compared to 70 percent of those who applied but were not offered the scholarships.
After the announcement of this week’s deal, Robert Enlow, CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, cheered in The Washington Times that the federal agreement is part of a ‘dramatic explosion,’ of efforts to give parents more power to get their children out of bad schools. He pointed to 25 proposed bills in 13 states in recent years.
But Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, said the decision is not an administration endorsement of vouchers. Duncan, who has proven to be a leader on school reform, said the administration agreed to the voucher deal only to avoid disrupting the education of children already in the program. He added: “we remain convinced that our time and resources are best spend on reforming the public school system to benefit all students and we look forward to working with Congress in a bipartisan manner to advance that goal.”
But what can Secretary Duncan, the president and the teachers unions say to parents with children currently in bad schools? To those parents promises of improved schools years down the road are hollow. Their children are being lost right now.
And it is galling to realize that the president has his daughters in private school to avoid the troubled DC public schools. In fact, some of his daughters’ classmates would have been unable to attend that elite school without the scholarships. The president, himself, is a child whose mother found a way out of the public school system and put him in an elite Hawaii private school.
So, why are minority parents, poor parents, not deserving of the right to pick the best school for their child?
The DC voucher program began in 2003, as the first ever federally funded school voucher program in the United States. The fact that Republicans proposed it in defiance of the teachers unions’ gave it a political overtone.
But politics or no politics, Washington ,DC is an ideal candidate for the program because it is one of the worst school districts in the entire country by nearly every measure of student performance – despite having one of the highest per-pupil spending rates on education.
When he came into office President Obama, to his shame, proposed a budget in 2009 that cut all funding for the program. The teachers unions argued it took money away from public schools. But the Congressional voucher program is done with separate funding.
Like the Obama White House, Congressional Democrats, out of loyalty to the teachers’ unions, had refused to reauthorize the program.
But when a GOP majority returned to the house in 2011, Speaker Boehner and Sen. Lieberman introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act to restore funding for the scholarship program and allow new students to take advantage of it. And with the latest agreement the program is growing again.
This is a victory for school choice advocates. It deserves a parade. And hopefully there will be more parades nationwide in the future.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.