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[Lindsey M. Burke] Value of scholarships in U.S. school system

Imagine being a low-income parent in the District of Columbia. As a parent living below the federal poverty line in one of the country’s most expensive cities, the options available for your child’s education are limited.

There are the D.C. Public Schools, which rank 51st in the nation on measures of academic achievement, but first in terms of school violence. And there are D.C. Public Charter Schools, many of which have wait lists.

But since 2004, there has been a third option ― one that more than 3,300 children have benefited from over the last seven years: the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships of up to $7,500 to low-income children to attend a school of their choice.

In a city where only 14 percent of eighth graders are proficient in reading, and just over half of all students graduate high school, these scholarships provide a lifeline.

But sadly, politics have gotten in the way. President Obama, himself a recipient of a private scholarship as a child, stood by as the last Congress worked to phase out the program.

Bowing to pressure from special interest groups, the president watched as Sen. Richard Durbin inserted poison-pill language into a government spending bill in 2009, prohibiting any new students from receiving scholarships.

Meanwhile, the administration continues pouring money into the Department of Education’s coffers ― despite little return on investment. The nearly $50 billion spent annually has failed to improve academic achievement, narrow achievement gaps, or ensure students are in a school that best meets their needs. Yet the administration refuses to compromise on the scholarships ― a federal program that actually works.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has clearly been a success.

Student achievement, particularly reading, has increased among scholarship children. And while just over half of D.C. Public School students graduate, 91 percent of students who used a voucher to attend private school graduated. Moreover, the students are safer, and parents are far happier.

The words of the parents and students themselves are a powerful reminder of what’s at stake.

If a child has found “that special place that they need to be, then we should do that,” said Joe Kelly, father of several recipients of D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, referring to whether the D.C. OSP should be restored.

Maritza White, mother of a scholarship child, says that the difference she sees in her son since his transition from public school to private school has been significant. “Academically, he was not able to focus in (public) school,” she said. “He wasn’t being challenged enough. If you asked him today, he’d say ‘I want to be an astronaut’. So my hopes for him are just as high as his. He’s shooting for the moon, and I’m going to be there with him.”

Jordan, a former scholarship recipient, notes that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has “allowed me a stellar education for less than 10 percent of the tuition. It has opened my eyes to opportunities far beyond what I knew to be available. My worldview has grown and I have learned so much about myself in the process.”

Jordan hits on an important point. The scholarships, at $7,500, are less than half the nearly $18,000 spent per-pupil in D.C. Public Schools.

Education researchers now have the data to back up this anecdotal evidence. A report by Greg Forster at the Foundation for Educational Choice examined the random assignment research studies that have been conducted on school-choice programs. It revealed that school-choice options such as vouchers improve educational outcomes for participating students ― while at the same time improving outcomes at nearby public schools.

Out of 10 random-assignment empirical studies, nine have found that vouchers improve academic outcomes for students using a voucher to attend private school. The research also reveals that out of the 19 studies that have examined the impact of vouchers on surrounding public schools, 18 found that public schools improved.

For thousands of low-income families in Washington, March 30 marked the day when hope was reclaimed. The House passed the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, a bill introduced by Speaker John Boehner to restore and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. It’s the only bill the speaker plans to sponsor this year, an indication of the importance he places on school choice.

President Obama has indicated he wants to show bipartisanship on education. If so, he should lend his support to school choice in the nation’s capital. It puts power in the hands of parents ― and opportunity within the grasp of students.

By Lindsey M. Burke

Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. ― Ed.

(The Heritage Foundation)
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)