In the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, children suffer in a public education system rife with violence and ranked among the worst in the nation. Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives took action to give those students some hope when it voted to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (D.C. OSP), which provides scholarships to low-income children, allowing them to attend their school of choice. It was one of the most consequential education votes that Congress will make this year. The program empowers parents, and it rejects the notion that a child should be relegated to a failing public school because they were born in the wrong zip code. Yet, remarkably, the program faces opposition from President Barack Obama and Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

The D.C. OSP was first launched in 2004, and since that time more than 3,300 children have had the chance to escape the underperforming and unsafe D.C. public schools. The statistics are jarring. As The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke notes, the D.C. public school system ranks 51st in the nation. Only 14 percent of 8th graders are proficient in reading, and just 55 percent of students in D.C. public schools graduate. Under the D.C. OSP, though, students have blossomed amid otherwise unfertile ground. Burke writes:

Congressionally mandated evaluations of the D.C. OSP, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, revealed that scholarship students were making gains in reading achievement compared with their public school peers.  The gains in academic attainment, however, have been most astounding.

While just more than half of all students in D.C. public schools graduate, 91% of students who received a voucher and used it to attend private school graduated.

Despite the program’s success, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) inserted language into a 2009 omnibus spending bill that brought about the program’s slow death and, without congressional reauthorization, no new students were allowed to receive scholarships. With the new Congress, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) introduced a bill re-authorizing the D.C. OSP; in anticipation of its passage in the House, President Obama launched a pre-emptive strike against the program. The White House issued a statement of opposition to the D.C. OSP, ignored evidence of its success and claimed, “it has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.” Yesterday, The Washington Post editorial board strongly rebuked the president and cited testimony by the principal investigator charged with evaluating the program, Patrick J. Wolf:

‘In my opinion, by demonstrating statistically significant experimental impacts on boosting high school graduation rates and generating a wealth of evidence suggesting that students also benefited in reading achievement, the D.C. OSP has accomplished what few educational interventions can claim: It markedly improved important education outcomes for low-income inner-city students.’

Sadly, despite the documented success of the program, the choice it offers parents and the opportunities it gives students in an otherwise failing school system, President Obama stands in opposition to its reauthorization, along with Democrats in the Senate. As Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice and visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation said, “The president cannot claim to be an education reformer while rejecting a program that raises graduation rates, increases parental satisfaction and boosts reading achievement.”

The president and Members of Congress who oppose the D.C. OSP are committing another offense against D.C. parents, as well – depriving them of the very choices they enjoy. Nearly 40 percent of the Members of the 111th Congress sent a child to private school. As a child, President Obama was a scholarship recipient, affording him the opportunity to attend the prestigious Punahou School in Hawaii. On top of this, his daughters attend the upscale Sidwell Friends School in D.C. As Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said in a floor speech prior to yesterday’s vote:

I went to the public schools in South Carolina. My wife teaches in the public schools in South Carolina. And my son will graduate from the public schools in South Carolina. But I will miss his graduation like many of you have missed things in your lives because we will be in session. What I will not miss is the opportunity to throw a lifeline to kids who were born through the vicissitudes of life into poverty. We will give them the same choices and chances that we have.

President Obama and Congress have an opportunity to throw that lifeline. If they truly want to empower parents, improve education and help students succeed, supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program would be a good place to start.

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