Obama, Democrats Put Politics Above Educating D.C.’s Disadvantaged Youth, Black Leaders Say

By Penny Starr | January 11, 2010 | 6:49pm EST

Juan Williams, political commentator with National Public Radio and Fox News Channel, said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., last week that he is disappointed that President Barack Obama does not support a scholarship program that helps low-income children have access to private schools, including the one the president's daughters attend. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

(CNSNews.com) – Black leaders say that President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Congress have put politics ahead of helping low-income children in the District of Columbia by refusing to support a program that allows 1,700 children to go to a private school, including the school Obama’s two daughters attend.
 
Congress did not reauthorize funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in the 2010-11 federal budget, ending a program that has helped thousands of disadvantaged children attend some of the best schools in the nation’s capitol since its inception in 2004.
 
And while Obama backed Congress’ move to continue funding scholarships for children already in the program until they graduate from high school, no new children will receive the $7,500 annual tuition scholarship.
 
“The cancellation of the program, in my view, has been an unprecedented move by the federal government, because this is a historic moment, historic government spending in our nation’s history – a time when the U.S. Treasury is giving hundreds of billions of dollars to Wall Street bailouts,” Juan Williams, political commentator, said at a press conference held last week at the National Press Club in Washington.
 
“Congress chose, in the midst of all this spending, to end a very small, $13 million dollar program that, according to the Department of Education (DOE), has increased and improved the reading scores of low-income children here in the District of Columbia,” he said.
 
“The move is a matter of politics, in my opinion, plain and simple,” Williams said. “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.”
 
Williams, a Democrat and regular commentator for National Public Radio, said his own personal story – growing up in poverty with a single mom devoted to seeing that her children got an education – makes helping disadvantaged children a moral imperative. He also said Obama, who attended a private school on scholarships while growing up in Hawaii, should share his passion for school choice.
 
“Despite the fact that support is evident, locally and nationally, for school choice programs, the cries of D.C. parents have rung hollow with the Congress and even more disappointing to me, with President Obama.”
 
Williams called access to quality education the most important civil rights issue facing low income, mostly minority families in the country today.

Virginia Walden Ford has been fighting for school choice in Washington, D.C., for a decade, including championing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program that has helped thousands of disadvantaged children in the district attend the top schools in the nation's capitol -- for half the cost of educating pupils in its public schools. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

Virginia Walden Ford, president of D.C. Parents for School Choice and long-time champion for the OSP program, also expressed at the press conference her displeasure with Obama’s lack of support.
 
“It is so frustrating to me, particularly as an African American, that this president hasn’t jumped to help us,” Walden Ford said. “In his 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.
 
“So why wouldn’t he understand the parents like Patricia and Carmen and the many parents who are fighting for their children?” Walden Ford said. “Why wouldn’t he understand that? It’s very, very confusing to me and very frustrating to me. I’m angry. I’m really, really angry that he wants us to have to fight for this program.”
 
Program successful
 
As reported CNSNews.com earlier, according to the Education Department’s own reports D.C. schools are the most expensive in the U.S., costing $18,339 per pupil per year for average daily attendance --- more than double the cost of an OSP tuition grant.
 
And the most recent Congress-mandated report on OSP three years after the program’s inception showed improved reading scores for the children enrolled in it and across-the board-support for the program by parents.
 
Math scores did not show significant improvement, but Dan Lips, an education policy expert with the Heritage Foundation, said reading was the most important indicator of the success of an academic program.
 
“It’s a shame that there hasn’t been a stronger effect in math, but from an education policy perspective, reading is really the focus of what we want to see first,” Lips said. “That’s the key that unlocks all the other doors to learning.”
 
A 30-minute documentary produced by the Heritage Foundation was also previewed at the press conference. “Let me Rise” is a moving account by parents and their children about how OSP has changed their lives.
 
The film also features footage from parents of the more than 200 children who were told they had been granted a scholarship for the 2009-2010 school year, only to be notified a short time later by DOE that OSP was not being reauthorized and no scholarships would be offered.
 
Presidential pledge
 
Ironically, when Obama spoke to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March, he cited the importance of access to a quality education and said that his administration would only back programs the have been documented as successful by the DOE.
 
“What's at stake is nothing less than the American Dream,” Obama said. “It's what drew my father and so many of your fathers and mothers to our shores in pursuit of an education. It's what led Linda Brown and Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez to bear the standard of all who were attending separate and unequal schools.
 
“It's what has led generations of Americans to take on that extra job, to sacrifice the small pleasures, to scrimp and save wherever they can, in hopes of putting away enough, just enough, to give their child the education that they never had. It's that most American of ideas, that with the right education, a child of any race, any faith, any station, can overcome whatever barriers stand in their way and fulfill their God-given potential.”
 
Obama went on to cite the importance of only using federal funds to finance programs deemed successful by the DOE.
 
“Secretary Duncan will 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.”
 
As CNSNews.com reported, when asked why the Obama administration did not support the reauthorization of OSP, Duncan said in a statement that school vouchers would not fix D.C.’s failing schools.
 
“I appreciate the desire of every family to have the best possible education for their child,” Duncan said. “I also understand that our role is to support children, parents and educators. That is why this Administration is devoting more resources and supports more ambitious reform of our public school systems than any administration in history.”

Kevin Chavous, former member of the D.C. City Council, advised President Barack Obama on education policy when he was a candidate, but now Chavous said Obama and the Democrats are beholden to special interests, including the teachers unions, and are acting against school choice. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

Democrat opposition
 
When CNSNews.com asked if a direct appeal to resurrect the program has been made to Obama, former City Councilman Kevin P. Chavous said that although he was an education policy adviser to the president when he was a candidate, he hasn’t spoken directly to him about OSP.
 
“It’s clear to me that they just wish we would go away,” Chavous said. “I also think that there are powerful people who are supporting the president who have worked against us, and I put Sen. (Dick) Durbin (D-Ill.) in that category.”
 
He also included the long-time D.C. delegate as an outspoken opponent to school choice.
 
“Even though the mayor and the majority of the city council again support it, it’s clear that our delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been a strong opponent, and I think that’s had a real major impact on us getting support from the president,” Chavous said. “She has made it her mission to kill this program.”
 
At the press conference, however, both black leaders and parents in attendance vowed to continue their efforts to get OSP restored.
 
“We’ve been fighting this fight for a long time, and we will continue to fight,” Walden Ford said.

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