Giving Students a Chance at Success

Rep. Darrell Issa
Politico
3/30/11

The House is due to vote Wednesday on reinstating the Opportunity Scholarship Program for the District of Columbia.

This is a critical education reform that can offer low-income students and their parents the chance to break out of low-performing public schools and receive a quality education. The reauthorized program would give an annual voucher of $8,000 for elementary students and $12,000 for secondary students within 185 percent of the poverty line. It could make it possible for thousands of district school children to prepare for college at the competitive private school of their choice.

But it is not just about helping one city’s schoolchildren. This is part of a larger national conversation about school reform. Across the country, an increasing number of states are looking for ways to break the cycle of low graduation rates and substandard public education to give under-privileged students an educational environment where they can succeed.

Opponents of school choice represent some of the most powerful special interests in the country. Teachers unions, for example, have long opposed school choice and have tried to block voucher programs like the DC Opportunity Scholarship. It was pressure from these groups that influenced President Barack Obama’s decision to end the DC scholarship two years ago. This injustice must be corrected.

The success of school choice programs like this one – which was originally passed in 2004 – is convincing. Parental satisfaction for scholarship recipients far exceeds that of parents whose children are trapped in failing public schools.

Students in the Washington program who get to attend better-performing private schools in the District are approximately three months ahead in reading ability, compared to non-scholarship students. Graduation rates for scholarship recipients are more than 30 percentage points higher than others in the district’s public schools.

These programs enjoy widespread support among those involved. Almost 75 percent of D.C. residents believe the Opportunity Scholarship Program’s success deserves reauthorization, according to a recent poll by the American Federation of Children. The D.C. City Council chairman, Kwame Brown, favors continuing the program, as do two former Washington mayors.

Growing bipartisan support in Congress means Democrats and Republicans can work together to help underprivileged students in Washington — which is Congress’s responsibility under the Constitution.

School choice programs, like the DC Opportunity Scholarship, strengthen public education systems by offering greater competition. A study by economist David Figlio of Northwestern University demonstrated that similar school choice programs in other parts of the country have improved public education.

In fact, no study to date has suggested school choice hurts student achievement in public schools.

Everyone benefits from the success of these school choice programs. High-performing students are better-equipped for a college education. College graduates are better prepared for well-paying jobs.

In this economy, Congress should be doing everything it can to give the next generation of lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs a chance to succeed. School choice is a critical part of the path to success.

Support for school choice is about providing immediate assistance for parents and their children – many of whom now wait years to get into charter schools. In many cases, these parents know that their kids attend some of the nation’s worst public schools, with some of the highest rates of drug use and crime. No parent should be forced to keep their children in unsafe schools that fail to provide a quality education.

We can think of no reason why Washington students should wait for long-term public school reform when immediate relief is now possible.

Reauthorizing the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program can open the doors to success for thousands of students living in the shadow of their nation’s Capitol. More than that, it provides an example for states across the country to follow as they seek to reform a broken system of public education.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) is the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) is the chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations.