Special Report

No One Vouching for Them

Putting teachers' unions, not D.C. school children, first.

By 5.7.09

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Tears welled up in Zed Yim's eyes when she was asked where her son will go to school next year. "I have no idea," she confided, before her emotions prevented her from saying any more.

Ms. Yim, along with 1400 D.C. schoolchildren, teachers, and parents rallied, yesterday in Freedom Park, just across from the White House, to protest the cancellation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) that provides school vouchers for 1700 disadvantaged D.C. youth. The Democratic Congress voted in a spending bill to defund the OSP earlier this year, thereby revoking the scholarships of kids like Zed's son, Kassa, who currently attends Sacred Heart School in Northwest D.C.

The rally, which featured speeches by former mayors Marion Barry and Anthony A. Williams as well as student and parent testimonials, drew students from OSP-participating schools all over D.C.. Neither Infinite Fields and Demarro Shavazz, scholarship recipients in the seventh grade at Bridges Academy, knew exactly who was responsible for ending their scholarship program, but their disappointment showed. Infinite called Bridges "fantastic," and said that studying there had improved his academic career. Demarro added that he did not think it was fair to axe the program, because "not all the parents can pay."

Donna Mebane, a teacher of literature and language arts at Bridges, explained that the OSP gives the kids an advantage. Bridges Academy's advanced curriculum allows the kids to enter high school ahead of the curve. In her seventh grade literature class of nine children, all but one or two are OSP participants. The death of the OSP program "will hurt a lot of people," she predicted. "It will definitely affect students."

Another mother in attendance, Anquanette Williamson, has two sons, Dayonte and Donae, attending private schools through vouchers. "I don't think it's fair to the parents or the kids," she said of the program's demise. She explained that it was particularly disheartening for the program to end just as it began to benefit those who needed it the most. "I don't want to be racist," she said, "but that's when they stopped [funding the program] -- when us minorities found out about it."

Although the rally's attendees knew that they had been dealt a bad hand, none who spoke to TAS knew exactly where to assign the blame. Most blamed D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and the City Council for ending the OSP.

In fact, Fenty supports vouchers. OSP lost its funding at the federal level. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, added language to the $410 billion omnibus spending bill enacted on March 11 that cut off the $14 million for the OSP. Senate Republicans submitted an amendment to remove the funding restrictions, but it was voted down. As a result, the families that participated in the OSP, with an average household income of approximately $24,300, face the prospect of tearing their kids away from the schools they have become acclimated to and re-enrolling them in D.C.'s dysfunctional public schools. According to the rally's organizers, over 85% of the scholarship students belong to public schools identified as "low performing" according to the No Child Left Behind standards.

In fact, a recent study (pdf) proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the program provides a better education than the terrible public schools, at about a third of the cost. Why would the Democrats on Capitol Hill want to end the voucher program? Why would President Obama and Treasury Secretary Arne Duncan, who repeatedly promise to do "what works" for the schools regardless of ideology, allow Congress to get away with it (and sweep the incriminating study under the rug)?

The Democratic Party's priorities, apparently, are with their consituents in the teachers' unions. The unions know that school reforms like vouchers threaten their jobs running mediocre public schools, and went so far as to remind the Democrats, "we paid good money for you." The Democrats are willing to consign these 1700 kids to mediocrity to appease the unions.

Although Obama officials said yesterday that the administration will try to restore funding for the current recipients until they finish at their schools, it is a poor compromise considering that thousands more D.C. families would love to enter the program and that Obama's intentions are useless unless he threatens to veto further efforts to cut the current recipients' funds. In fact Obama's weak efforts are hypocritical, considering that Obama himself would not be where he is today had he not received a scholarship to attend a private school in Hawaii. Furthermore, neither he nor Arne Duncan entrusted their own children to the D.C. public school system, sending them to prestigious private schools instead. And yet they will not stand up to defend the same right for 1700 poor kids who do not have parents in the upper echelons of government to speak for them.

The families that gathered at Freedom Plaza yesterday are mostly unaware of the distant politics that conspired to deprive them of the opportunities afforded by the OSP, but they know that they want the same privilege to choose their children's education that Barack Obama and Arne Duncan have. There is no justifiable reason to deprive them of this choice, and so the Democrats' politically-motivated decision to do so, abetted by the administration, can best be described as unconscionable. Even that description, however, falls short when you see a mother crying because she does not know where her son will get an education.

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About the Author

Joseph Lawler, former managing editor of The American Spectator, is editor of Real Clear Policy. Follow him on twitter: @josephlawler.