Supporters of a celebrated school voucher program in Washington rallied near the mayor's office Wednesday to save the scholarships from being slashed by Congress -- nearly 40 percent of whose members send their own children to private schools.
An estimated 1,000 parents, children and community leaders attended the afternoon protest in Washington's Freedom Plaza, where they called on D.C. politicians to help preserve a federal school choice program that currently assists more than 1,700 students with scholarships worth up to $7,500.
"Several years ago many of us in this good city worked very hard to get a program going with the federal government so that children could go to the schools of their choice. This program has worked," said Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. councilman, but "right now some folks in Congress want to end this program."
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is slated to end next year because of a provision slipped into Congress' $410 billion omnibus spending bill by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., whose children attend private school.
The amendment has angered parents who say the vouchers have raised performance and rescued students from one of the country's worst public school systems.
"I saw dramatic change. The change is not even comparable to what a parent could do alone," said Ingrid Campbell, a single mother of three who has two daughters in the opportunity program.
"I'm going to have to get a part-time job" when the funds are cut off, she told FOX News Wednesday morning before the rally. "I'll do anything, anything in my power and my will to keep my two little girls in their schools."
Rally organizers blasted members of Congress for opposing vouchers but choosing private school for their own families, a choice they say is denied the poorest residents of Washington.
"Your tax dollars also go to pay the salaries of Congress, 40 percent of whom send their kids to private schools," said Joe Robert, a board member of D.C. Children First, a pro-voucher organization.
"Right now we have choices around America but we only have it for people who have some money. We don't have it for people who are struggling."
Thirty-six percent of U.S. representatives and 44 percent of the senators with school-age children have sent their kids to private schools, according to a study by the Heritage Foundation.
Just 11 percent of American schoolchildren attend private schools, according to the study.
The rally, which was held just blocks from the White House, ratcheted up pressure on the Obama administration to address the axing of the program, which would remove two black scholarship students from Sidwell Friends, the private academy that President Obama's daughters attend.
Some parents wondered how Obama would explain the absence of Sarah and James Parker from Sidwell Friends next year.
"I wonder how he feels when his daughter says, 'Hey daddy, my best friend is not coming back next year.' How would that feel?" said Campbell, whose young daughter has pledged to work after school to help pay her own tuition at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. "Maybe he can feel what we parents are feeling right now."
Parents with children in the program have been enthusiastic supporters of the vouchers, but a government review released in March offered a less sanguine view of the scholarships.
The program improved reading but not math scores, and while parents were pleased with the increased safety at private schools, students did not report much of a change. The study included both students who used the scholarship and some who were only offered the funds.
The rally was attended and addressed by prominent D.C. politicians, including former mayor Anthony Williams, who credited his success to an excellent education, and former mayor Marion Barry, who said he was a strong supporter of choice.
"We've got to tell Congress to fund this program and not let local people down," said Barry, who currently sits on the city council.
Barry and others pledged to push to rescue the program before it ends this year.
"We're here today to express our full support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. We want the city council, the mayor, we want members of Congress, we want all of the decision makers to know that our kids come first," said Benjamin Chavis, co-chairman of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network.