Students from Holy Redeemer High School

The president’s proposed FY2011 budget increases funding to the Department of Education by $3.5 billion. But despite this significant increase, his budget effectively cuts the freedom of choice and educational opportunities from the lives of children living in the District of Columbia. What began last year as a low-profile attempt to quietly phase out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has become a noticeable agenda of denying school choice to District families. Representative John Boehner wrote about the administration’s decision today:

“President Obama’s job-killing budget does away with school choice in the nation’s capital. Even with all the profligacy that the FY 2011 budget represents, the President still finds room to kill one of the most successful and important programs enacted by Congress: the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program.  Based on current program participation rates and the amount of available program funding carried forward from prior fiscal years, the President assumes that this will be the final request for federal funding to support the Opportunity Scholarship Program.  The President is calling for this program’s termination despite the fact that the Department of Education is getting another massive injection of taxpayer money.  In other words, the Administration is boosting funding for underachieving public schools in DC, while at the same time terminating funding for the successful DC school choice program.”

The most recent casualty in the struggle to save the successful voucher program’s future is Holy Redeemer Catholic School. The Pre-K through 8th grade school, which has served the community of Northwest Washington, D.C. since 1955, is closing its doors. The Washington, D.C. Archdiocese’s decision to close or combine four Catholic schools in the area speaks to the difficult situation face by Catholic schools in general and the important role voucher programs play in the schools’ ability to provide a high quality, private school education. The Washington Post notes:

“The changes come at a tough time for area Catholic schools, which have been suffering from declining enrollment because of the economy and, in the District, the winding-down of the federal voucher program that gives low-income families up to $7,500 to attend private schools.”

The Archdiocese recently released a statement regarding the school closings, noting congressional wavering on reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program as a contributing factor to closing Holy Redeemer:

“Of the 149 students now enrolled, nearly 35 percent are Catholic. Sixty students depend on Opportunity Scholarships for tuition assistance. That program is scheduled to end after the 2010-2011 year without action by Congress. The uncertainty over OSP’s future and the decision by the U.S. Department of Education to bar new students from entering the program this year already has contributed to a decline of 24 Opportunity Scholarship recipients at the school since 2007-08.”

While Archdiocese leaders have pledged assistance in transitioning Holy Redeemer families to another Catholic school, the situation inevitably means many students formerly receiving a private school education will return to failing, often unsafe public schools. What President Obama and congressional leaders had hoped would be a quiet dismissal of the scholarship program has become a loud declaration against the freedom of school choice and educational opportunity.

But there is still hope for schools like Holy Redeemer and the DC OSP generally moving forward.  Rep. Boehner and Senator Joe Lieberman sent a letter last week to President Obama requesting the administration’s support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Senator Lieberman along with Senator Susan Collins and a number of D.C. families participated in a press conference yesterday to call on the president to keep his promise to “fund what works” and provide students necessary and equal educational choices.