WASHINGTON-Speaker John Boehner's special guests for the State of the Union address were low-income Washington, D.C., schoolchildren who have been receiving vouchers to attend private schools, along with advocates who have fought for that scholarship program to be resurrected.
In 2009, the Obama administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress began phasing out the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which had 1,700 students enrolled and cost $14 million. On Wednesday, Boehner introduced a bill along with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., to reopen the program to new students-currently the program only has funding available for students who were already enrolled in private schools.
"I believe in competition," Boehner said Wednesday, explaining his support for school choice programs. This is likely to be the only bill Boehner introduces in this Congress, according to his spokesman Michael Steel. Education is close to Boehner's heart: He was one of the chief architects of the 2001 education reform program "No Child Left Behind."
"It's not about any particular program," Lieberman added. "It's about providing a multitude of options where the ultimate benefit is not for any existing system but for our children." He called the scholarships a "civil rights program." Ninety percent of students in the D.C. program are African-American and 9 percent are Hispanic. When the program started in 2004, the average income of participating parents was $17,000.
Lieberman fought and failed to preserve the program in 2009 and 2010, though he garnered Democratic support from Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. The chances of passage are better now, with more Republicans in the Senate even though Democrats still have the majority.
Andrew Campanella, the director of communications and marketing for the Alliance for School Choice, which supports vouchers, was one of Boehner's guests Tuesday night, and he said the election of "school choice majorities" at state and national levels in November means the movement has the wind at its back. Right now 12 states have voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs.
In Washington, the voucher program has won the support of the majority of the district's Democratic council, but not the support of new Mayor Vincent Gray, who has told Congress to stay out of local matters. But the city relies on federal funding for about 35 percent of its revenue. The scholarships of up to $7,500 sharply contrast with what the city spends per student in the public school system: $13,000.
Patricia William, a single mother whose two sons are currently in the voucher program, met Boehner recently. "I'm glad he's supporting us," she told me. While her sons were allowed to stay in the program because they joined before Congress closed it to new students, she is anxious that funding might not be renewed year after year. Her son Pierre, 8, has never been to a D.C. public school: "I don't want him to be exposed to that."
Safety at school is one of the reasons parents are so pleased with the program, in a city where public schools can sometimes be violent places. Studies also showed that the D.C. program improved voucher recipients' reading scores and raised high school graduation rates by 21 percent. One area that voucher schools didn't improve was math scores, which lead researcher Patrick Wolf said could perhaps be attributed to the national scarcity of good math teachers.
William said children should have good schools to attend, but fundamentally, "If the parent is not involved, things can go wrong."