Lawmakers Implore Obama to Revive Scholarship Program for Low-Income D.C. Children

By Penny Starr | January 28, 2010 | 1:04 PM EST

Screenshot from video "Let Me Rise" about D.C. school-choice program. (Courtesy of the Heritage Foundation.)

( – On the same day President Barack Obama addressed the nation about putting Americans back to work, two members of Congress urged him to reverse his administration’s decision to end a small school-choice program that helps largely poor and minority children attend private schools in the District of Columbia.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) sent a letter to Obama on Wednesday, asking him to reverse his administration’s decision to pull funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in the 2010-11 budget.
This program has helped thousands of young people escape from some of the worst schools in the nation,” Boehner said in a press release announcing the letter to the president. “It is a model of reform that should be expanded, not ended.”
“I appeal to President Obama to save this effective program that provides a valued opportunity to disadvantaged students in the District of Columbia,” Lieberman said in the release. “We must not allow the twilight to fall on this vital program that serves those in the dawn of life.”
Boehner helped create the OSP as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Since its inception in 2004, the program has provided scholarships to 1,700 students each year allowing them to attend one of the many high quality private schools in the nation’s capital, including the school Obama’s two daughters attend, the Sidwell Friends School.
The $7,500 scholarships in the OSP cost less than half of the more than $18,000 spent for daily attendance each year for students in D.C. public schools, which are ranked as some of the worst performing and violence-plagued schools in the country.
The Obama administration has said its goal is to fix the broken schools in the District so all school children can have access to a quality education.
But critics charge that politics played a role in the program being defunded by the Obama administration. As reported earlier by, supporters spoke out at an event earlier this month at the National Press Club.
“The move is a matter of politics, in my opinion, plain and simple,” political commentator Juan Williams said at the event. “Powerful special interest groups like the National Education Association are clearly committed to destroying and denying these programs as they benefit low-income families, and denying them the same opportunities that powerful Washington politicians and privileged people take for granted – the power to choose a safe and effective school for their children.”
“It is so frustrating to me, particularly as an African American, that this president hasn’t jumped to help us,” Virginia Walden Ford, who founded D.C. Parents for School Choice and has spearheaded the efforts to save the scholarship program. “In (Obama’s) book, he has said if it had not been for the opportunity to attend a quality school, he may not have been where he is today.”
In March, Obama signed an omnibus appropriations bill that said no new money would be spent on the school-choice program after the 2009-2010 school year unless the program is reauthorized, something a Democrat-majority Congress is unlikely to do.

In April, Education Secretary Arne Duncan effectively terminated the D.C. school-choice program by ruling that no new students would be allowed to enter the program in the coming school year.

In May, Obama made a temporary concession by announcing he would seek sufficient funds for the program in the coming years to allow the 1,716 students already receiving school vouchers to continue to receive the vouchers until they complete high school. But no new students can be added, so the program will end unless the administration changes its policy.

The letter from Boehner and Lieberman follows:
Dear Mr. President:
We are writing to you to urge you to save the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (D.C. OSP). 
The 111th Congress considered language before the end of the first legislative session that restricted D.C. OSP funding only to students already participating in the scholarship program, calling into question the future of the program.  The D.C. OSP has been an effective educational alternative for more than 3,000 low-income students in the District of Columbia.  Terminating the program will be devastating for many low-income families who are zoned for underachieving and often unsafe schools, most of whom will not be selected to attend one of the area’s charter schools.  D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government that terminating the program will be a substantial burden for the D.C. public schools as they will need to absorb these opportunity scholarship recipients. 
We ask for your leadership to prevent the termination of the program by including support for a reauthorization of the program, including allowing new students into the program as spaces become available, in your fiscal year 2010 budget. 
In an education speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on March 10, 2009, you said you would direct Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to “use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”  Mr. President, this program works.  According to Patrick Wolf, the principal investigator for the study conducted under the auspices of the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, this program has met a tough standard for efficacy.  Dr. Wolf found that “the D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s official education research arm so far.”  Using your stated criteria, this program should be reauthorized and additional students should be allowed to participate.
We agree that opportunity scholarships alone are not the sole solution to the problems that have long beset the troubled public school system in the District of Columbia.  We fully support the efforts of Chancellor Rhee to turn around the public schools, and Congress has appropriated extra funding to the District to complement her efforts.  However, as she has indicated, it will take many more years to turn around underachieving public schools in the District.  In the meantime, young lives are at stake and young lives are being lost.  We should not sacrifice these students to politics as we work to improve the public school system.  At $7,500 per student, this program provides a quality education at less than half the cost of the per pupil expenditure for students in the D.C. public school system.  And it is getting better results. 
The D.C. OSP has the overwhelming support of D.C. residents, parents, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Chancellor Rhee, former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and a majority of the D.C. City Council.  As efforts are made to turn-around D.C.’s underachieving public schools we must reauthorize the D.C. OSP to ensure that low-income D.C. students have access to quality education today, and we need to ensure that the same number of students is able to participate as in recent years.  We hope you will agree that there is no justifiable reason to end this program and that you will work with us to guarantee the future of the D.C. OSP program.