D.C. children deserve better

Rep. Darrell Issa Congressman, California 49th District
Font Size:

In 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court rendered its opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, effectively closing a tragic chapter in American public education that had confined disadvantaged minority students in substandard schools. Yet today—more than 50 years later—the Obama administration has erected new roadblocks on the path of equal opportunity paved by this landmark decision.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was launched in January 2004 with bipartisan support to give district schoolchildren the chance for a quality education rather than force them into classrooms known more for violent crime than academic achievement. According to recent test scores, two-thirds of children in the D.C. public school system lack basic reading proficiency, and a recent study of D.C. school violence found an astounding 846 incidences of violent crime, armed robbery and aggravated sexual assault in the past year.

On the other hand, the Department of Education released last year an annual report of the program that demonstrated how scholarship recipients are statistically outperforming their public school counterparts in basic skills.

But despite the program’s measured success, President Obama has effectively killed it. To the thousands of children who are trapped in dead-end D.C. schools, the “Yes We Can” president has defiantly said, “No You Can’t.”

The reasons to continue funding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program are convincing—just ask the children who receive them, their parents, members of the D.C. State Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court who affirmed the constitutionality of such programs and the independent board appointed by Congress to oversee them.

First, the program worked. Since 2004, more than 3,000 underprivileged students received the opportunity to pursue their dream of a better education. When asked why they wanted their children to attend private schools of their choice, parents cited safety and higher academic standards as primary factors. A recent study by The Heritage Foundation found that when scholarship recipients are given the chance to learn in safer schools, they achieve higher test scores.

Second, the scholarships served to mitigate the many cultural and economic pressures that keep the majority of disadvantaged students in failing public schools. It’s true that public education in America needs comprehensive reform, but there is no reason why deserving children in the worst schools should continue to suffer while President Obama dreams up other ways to solve the systemic problems.

Third, the bipartisan support that the program has received demonstrates its popular appeal. Senators from Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) to Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) to Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) are standing together for the program’s reauthorization. Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams called the program “a lifeline to hope for thousands of families,” and the head of Sidwell Friends—the private school where President Obama sends his daughters—has urged Congress to “keep the windows open…and unlock even more.” Surely the president is willing to give these voices as much consideration as he does the powerful teachers’ unions who vehemently oppose school choice.

It is troubling that the Obama administration pushed so hard to end a program that cost a meager $13 million to benefit thousands of poor children. It is appalling that he was willing to do so while dumping hundreds of billions of dollars into failing insurance giants, bankrupt auto manufacturers and the government-backed mortgage lenders who caused the current economic crisis, all the while driving our federal budget to the highest deficits in history.

One wonders where, exactly, this president’s priorities lie.

Justice Clarence Thomas has rightly noted that “the failure to provide education to poor urban children perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty, dependence, criminality, and alienation that continues for the rest of their lives.”

With this in mind, Congress should reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and prudently invest taxpayer dollars in the promise of quality education for America’s children.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.