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Factions fight

Education | D.C. elite and low-income families speak out about the Obama administration's denial of school vouchers

WASHINGTON-On Wednesday, students, parents, D.C. politicians, and city business leaders stood outside district offices, a block from the White House, looking down Pennsylvania Avenue at the Capitol, protesting the nexus of powers that are ending the city's successful school voucher program after next year.

Congress, in a move supported by many among the district's council and teacher unions, passed a measure in its budget that effectively ended the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program after next year. The program provides 1,700 low-income students with scholarships to the schools of their choice. Several of the recipients attend the elite private school Sidwell Friends with Sasha and Malia Obama.

Obama officials said late Wednesday that the president would provide $12 million in next year's budget to keep the current students in school.

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan, while saying the agency plans to help current scholarship recipients stay in their schools after the program ends, cut off funds last month to 200 new students who had been approved for scholarships for the upcoming school year.

That decision affects Latasha Bennett, who has a second-grader attending the private Naylor Road School through the scholarship program. "He gets all A's and two B's," she testified. Her 4-year-old daughter Nia qualifies for a scholarship as a kindergartener next year and was approved, but Bennett later received a retraction letter saying new scholarships wouldn't be awarded. She, however, has no intention of taking the children to two separate schools next year.

"I want her to excel with him," she told me. "Tell them I'm going to fight." She plans to testify before a Senate committee next week.

Fourteen senators, including three Democrats, composed a letter to Secretary Duncan protesting his decision.

"Your actions have effectively ended the program before Congress has had the opportunity to consider reauthorizing it," they wrote.

The gathering was a sea of African-American faces. Nearly all of the scholarship recipients are black or Hispanic, and the vast majority of the parents vote Democratic.

One student at the rally asked her friend, "Where's Obama?" The president was meeting with leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The prominent district residents who did appear included legendary former mayor and now council member Marion Barry, former mayor Anthony Williams, who helped begin the program in 2004, other former and current council members, and platinum R&B artists Mya and Ginuwine.

One politician was conspicuously absent: Mayor Adrian Fenty (who incidentally sends his twin sons to a private school). His office did not return requests for comment.

"He should be supporting whatever best educational option works for district low-income families," said Greg Cork, who directs the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit organization that administers the program. "This program is working, the reports have proved."

A Department of Education report released in April showed that students in the voucher program are three months ahead of their public school counterparts in reading, and recorded a high level of satisfaction among parents as well. Some have criticized President Obama for promising to do "what works" in regards to vouchers during his campaign while letting the program continue to its demise after the results of the study.

The $14 million program is less than 2 percent of the district's education budget-and the scholarship awards of $7,500 each haven't increased since the program began, while tuition costs have constantly risen.

"You mean to tell me you will give bailouts . . . yet we don't have enough to bail our children out to get a private education? That ain't right," said parent Greg Rhett.

"I'm hopping mad," said Olivia Brown, whose older children have scholarships-but her 4-year-old son Carlos was denied a scholarship for next year.

Others are protesting the hypocrisy of politicians who are seeking to end the program but sending their own children to private schools. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., led Democratic defense in the Senate against Republican attempts to preserve the program-he sent his children to private schools. Duncan sends his children to the superior public schools in Virginia.

Duncan explained his personal decision to Science magazine: "My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve. I didn't want to try to save the country's children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children's education."

A new study by The Heritage Foundation found that 44 percent of senators have sent their children to private schools, three times the national average. Thirty-seven percent of Senate Democrats-who nearly all voted to discontinue the program without further authorization-have sent their children to private schools.

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