"Go down Moses, tell the Pharaoh let my people go! ... Go down Mr. President, let our children go to the school of their choice!" former Washington Mayor Marion Barry proclaimed to applause at the D.C. School Choice Rally yesterday in front of Capitol Hill.
Moses' cry to "let my people go" rallied the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and '60s. The mostly black crowd agreed with Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has said that education is the "civil rights issue of our generation." Yet on the issue of D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program allowing school choice, the president, his Education Department, and Congress would rather play the role of Pharaoh than Moses.
Some 1,500 people were there -- most with yellow T-shirts reading "Put kids first." Many of the attendees were students on lunch break, in addition to several hundred parents and relatives of students who turned out to voice support for the program. "Give parents a choice, kids a chance," said April Cole-Walter, whose daughter was enrolled under the scholarship program.
Kids in D.C. public schools don't have much of a chance. Of the states plus D.C., Washington ranked last, 51st out of 50 states, in the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2007 test in 8th grade math and reading proficiency rates. Students in voucher programs have demonstrated better results, yet these data have not persuaded enough politicians to buck Democratic constituencies that favor the status quo.
The trouble began in March when Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) inserted language in a spending bill that cut the $14 million for the Opportunity Scholarship Program from the Department of Education's budget. The cut meant that the 1,700 scholarships under the program would be revoked. However, since TAS reported on the issue in May, the president has allowed ongoing scholarship recipients to continue through the 12th grade, but has reneged on incoming scholarship recipients for this academic year.
Last year, LaTasha Bennett was informed that her 4-year-old daughter, Nia, would receive a scholarship under the program that they would use to enroll her in Naylor Road School with her older brother. But last spring she received a second letter from the Department of Education that said her daughter's scholarship was being canceled because of the program's termination. Nia was one of 216 low-income children that had her scholarship revoked by the Obama administration.
"I'm not going to send my child to a public school," Ms. Bennett told TAS yesterday. She then explained that her nephew had died in a gunfight at a public school and that she would not allow that to happen to her daughter. Nia is now receiving support from private donations, allowing her to go to the private Naylor Road School, but it is uncertain how long she will be able to continue receiving sufficient donations.
Some children aren't as fortunate. Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, told TAS she believed that the majority of the 216 children who had their scholarships revoked were forced to attend public schools this year.
Also present was Bruce Stewart, former head of Sidwell Friends School, the prestigious private Quaker school attended by the president's children. No new students will attend that school this year under voucher money -- just the students whose parents can afford it, wealthy students like Sasha and Malia Obama.
Several members of the audience were less than happy with the Congress. "Durbin, he's the worst!" a lady said about the Democratic majority whip. Public support for the D.C. voucher program has polled at around 75% approval. Yet, teachers unions overwhelmingly reject vouchers as a solution to failing public schools. In the 2008 election cycle, 95% of teacher union political contributions went to Democrats.
Ex-mayor Barry, House Minority Leader John Boehner, and former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, were among several who voiced support yesterday for school choice in Washington, D.C. It remains uncertain what will happen to the program. On July 30, Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), George Voinovich (R-OH), Robert Byrd (D-WV), and John Ensign (R-NV) introduced legislation expanding the program, but it hasn't been brought to the floor for a vote. The bill would authorize $20 million in Opportunity Scholarships.
The fight for school choice in D.C. has pitted predominantly black, Democratic parents against their own party and produced an unlikely alliance with the GOP. Barack Obama's election was arguably the culmination of the civil rights struggle. But these parents are still looking for someone to let their people go.