Stripping opportunity from DC’s children

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There they go again. Washington’s so-called liberals are planning to strip away life-changing scholarships from low-income minority children in the District — just another gift from the left to the teachers’ unions. 

The Obama administration played the same game with the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) at nearly every opportunity over two terms. Families (and participating schools) were in constant limbo, due to the uncertainty inherit in having the program funded through an annual appropriations process subject to the whims of congressional politics, rather than through permanent, stable funding. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, went as far as to rescind hundreds of scholarships that had already been awarded to students hoping to attend safe and effective private schools.

The Biden administration’s plans to follow suit surfaced in a report accompanying the FY 2022 House Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, which approves D.C. spending. It revealed that funding for the scholarship program would continue at $17.5 million through 2022, but “the Committee expects the Administration to phase out the Opportunity Scholarship Program in fiscal year 2023.” 

Accordingly, the report “directs the District of Columbia, in consultation with the nonprofit corporation that administers the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, to submit a plan within 180 days of enactment of this Act that ensures that students currently participating in the program are allowed to complete their education at their current school and also ensures that no new students are admitted to the program.”

As the Washington Post explains, “The measure is likely to pass the House, setting up a potential fight in the Senate, where bipartisan support for the program has helped to stave off past efforts to abolish it, including by the Obama administration.”

Indeed, the Obama administration tried to zero-out funding for the highly successful program at nearly every budget opportunity it had. But a handful of congressional champions – Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), among others  — always rose in opposition.

Why have they done so? What exactly is at stake with President Biden’s proposed elimination of the OSP? In short, the futures of thousands of children.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was established in 2004 with passage of the District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Act. It created scholarships for children from low-income families living in Washington, D.C., to attend any private school of their choice. Since then, participating students have enjoyed safe and effective learning environments that their parents have chosen because the schools were the right fit for them. 

Access to the program significantly increases students’ likelihood of graduating high school — a major predictor of long-term success. A randomized controlled trial evaluation of the program conducted by the Department of Education found a 12 percentage-point difference between the treatment and control groups, meaning that the offer of a scholarship resulted in graduation rates of 82 percent, versus 70 percent for students who were not offered a scholarship. The authors estimate that actual use of a scholarship to attend a private school of choice increased graduation rates 21 percentage points

The program also raises parents’ perceptions of school safety and their level of satisfaction with their child’s school.

Yet, even as the administration is trying to zero-out funding for this highly successful program it’s proposing an eye-popping 41 percent hike in the Department of Education’s budget.

That proposed budget increase is just the beginning of the Biden administration’s recent spending spree. The American Rescue Plan, which Biden signed into law in March, included $130 billion for elementary and secondary schools (nearly double the Department of Education’s annual budget). Additionally, the president’s $102.8 billion FY2022 discretionary request for the agency includes the American Families Plan, which would establish everything from “free” federal preschool to “free” community college.

Compared to the bloated budget proposal, the scholarship program’s cost is couch-cushion change. Yet somehow this is a bridge too far for team Biden. 

Perhaps the problem is that the scholarships don’t cost enough. The maximum scholarship award is $8,857 in K-8 and $13,287 for high school — chump change compared to the more than $27,000 per-child, per-year spent in D.C. Public Schools.

Put differently, taxpayers spend over $350,000 per child in D.C. public schools to get them from kindergarten to graduation, yet expend a little more than one-third of that – $132,861 – to graduate a student through the D.C. scholarship program. 

But school safety, improved academic attainment, happier students and parents, and massive savings appear to be less persuasive to the Biden administration than the teachers’ unions and their deep pockets.

For the sake of thousands of D.C. students, it’s once again time to fight for this critically important program.

Lindsey Burke is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. Now a visiting fellow at the Center, Virginia Walden Ford is the founder of D.C. Parents for School Choice, the grassroots organization that successfully pushed for establishment of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Tags Arne Duncan Boehner D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program Dianne Feinstein Education Education economics Joe Biden John Boehner Opportunity Scholarship Program School choice

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