The education debacle of the decade

Bob Ewing Contributor
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Dr. Patrick Wolf spoke to a packed audience in the Capitol Visitors Center last Monday.

The seats were full and people stood all along the edges of the room, even spilling out into the hallway.  We all came to hear him explain his latest research on the tiny education program that has caused a national uproar—arousing so much passion that African-American leaders from around the country recently gathered downtown to engage in an act of civil disobedience.

The Department of Education commissioned Wolf to conduct a series of detailed studies on the results of the Washington DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP).  Established in 2004 as a five-year pilot program, OSP is among the most heavily researched federal education programs in history.

OSP targeted about 2,000 of the poorest kids in DC who were stuck in some of the worst schools in the country.  It gave their parents a $7,500 scholarship to attend a private school of their choice.

The response was immediate.  Four applications were filled out for every slot available.    Parents loved the program, considering it a lifeline for their children, a way to escape failing schools and enter safe, functional schools.

Everyone knew OSP would be a bargain.  DC has among the highest spending per pupil in the nation.  At a conservative estimate of $17,542, the public schools spend over $10,000 more per child than the $7,500 spent through the scholarship program.

But would OSP achieve measureable results?

The answer is a resounding yes.  Previous studies by Wolf showed an improvement in academic performance, to the point that a student participating in OSP from kindergarten through high school would likely be 2 ½ years ahead in reading.  The key finding in this final round of research, Wolf told us, was the graduation rates.   OSP dramatically increases prospects of high-school graduation.

Wolf pointed to research showing that high-school diplomas significantly improve the chance of getting a job.  And dropouts that do find employment earn about $8,500 less per year than their counterpoints with diplomas. Further, each graduate reduces the cost of crime by a stunning $112,000.  Cecelia Rouse, an economic advisor to President Obama, found that each additional high school graduate saves the country $260,000.

Simply put, OSP has a profoundly positive effect not just on students, but on the city and the country as a whole.

So when it came time for Congress to reauthorize OSP, it would seem to be a no-brainer:  Expand the program.

Instead, they killed it.

Buried deep inside a 1000+ page, half-trillion-dollar spending bill was a provision that prohibited any new students from entering the program.  To top it off, the 216 new students added to OSP for the new academic year were pulled out by Education Secretary Arne Duncan just before the school year started.

Why did this happen?  According to former DC Mayor Anthony Williams and former DC Councilman Kevin Chavous (both Democrats), the answer is politics at its worst.

Williams and Chavous co-authored an op-ed arguing that politicians opposing OSP “are largely fueled by special-interest groups that are more dedicated to the adults working in the education system than to making certain every child is properly educated.”

The editorial board of the Washington Post put it a little more bluntly:

It’s clear, though, from how the destruction of the [OSP] program is being orchestrated, that issues such as parents’ needs, student performance and program effectiveness don’t matter next to the political demands of teachers’ unions.

The Post board also wrote that “the debate unfolding on Capitol Hill isn’t about facts.  It’s about politics and the stranglehold the teachers unions have on the Democratic Party.”

As it turns out, the teachers unions are the single largest contributor to federally elected politicians, with the vast majority of their funds going to Democrats.  The teachers unions don’t like programs like OSP because when parents have the freedom to choose, they may choose schools that don’t have unionized teachers.

DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was one of the principal opponents of OSP and was instrumental in ending the program.   Guess who her largest donor is?  Answer here.

The three main critiques of OSP are that it takes money away from the public schools, is not accountable and does not provide a cure-all solution to improving education.  None of these critiques has merit.

First, OSP takes no money away from public schools.  By stark contrast, it pumps millions of dollars into the public schools. OSP is funded with new federal money as part of a plan that allocates matching funding directly to the public schools.  So for every dollar that goes to OSP, the public schools get an extra dollar.

Plus, the public schools get to keep all the money saved through OSP.  This means that in addition to the matching funds, the public schools receive over $10,000 for every child in OSP—children that the public schools do not have to educate.  Also worth noting, the Education Secretary has a $159 billion budget with billions going to education programs that are unproven.

Second, OSP is truly accountable.  Parents care about the welfare of their individual children more than any politician or bureaucrat. The parents are overjoyed with the program, unlike their prior dissatisfaction with the DC public schools they are desperate to escape.

Third, DC kids need help right now and OSP provides it.  Systemic reform takes time, and while we all should support and applaud recent efforts to reform the public schools, it will be years before they perform as well as the private schools that the OSP students attend, if they ever do.  That is, children in school today need help today.  They cannot wait for years or decades for reform to hopefully come.

To his credit, Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged that the OSP students are “safe and learning and doing well.” He argued, “We can’t be satisfied with saving 1 or 2 percent of children and letting 98 or 99 percent down.”

The obvious answer would seem to be to expand OSP and “save” more kids, not shut it down and force 100 percent of DC students to be “let down.”

When Congress killed OSP, there was a national backlash.  Editorials in papers across the country denounced the decision.  Thousands of kids from several states rallied on Capitol Hill to save the program.  Black leaders gathered in an act of civil disobedience before the front doors of the Department of Education.  They pointed out that just about half of African-American and Latino students are graduating from high school today and the OSP students are almost completely African-American and Latino.

Even the DC public-school chancellor supported OSP and told Congress that the public schools would likely not be able to reabsorb the students and give them the same quality education.  The DC City Council went so far as to petition Arne Duncan to reverse his decision.

Duncan understands the importance of school choice.  He famously said that “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.”  So he chose to send his kids to public schools in Virginia rather than DC.

In fact, 38 percent of Congress chooses to send their kids to private schools.  That’s four times the national average.  A vote in the Senate to save OSP was defeated 58-39.  If only the Senators who exercise school choice themselves had voted in favor of OSP, the program would have been saved.

And so OSP will end.  Thankfully, the students currently enrolled will be able to continue through to graduation.  But with no new students allowed in the program, it will die through attrition.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with the OSP parents and kids for the last four years. And I’ve come to know many of them personally, and experience firsthand their reaction to the heartbreaking news.

Latasha Bennett’s son, for example, attends an excellent school on a scholarship and he’s doing great.  Her daughter was going to attend kindergarten at the same school, thanks to OSP.  And then Latasha got the letter from Arne Duncan stating that her daughter was being forced to leave the program.  Her son was safe, but her daughter was one of the 216.  Latasha cannot afford the school’s tuition and the charter schools were all filled up by the time Duncan’s rejection letter showed up.  So her daughter had no option but to attend the local public school, which has two-thirds of its students failing to meet basic benchmarks in math and reading.

In fact, 90 percent of the 216 kids shut out of OSP were reassigned to failing public schools.

It’s too late to save OSP.  But thankfully, elsewhere the tide is turning.  Two weeks ago a bi-partisan school choice bill was signed into law in Louisiana.  It comes on the heels of a similar program in Oklahoma and is the nation’s 20th school choice program.

People will continue to have intelligent and respectful debates about school choice and education reform.  And whether we are liberal, conservative, libertarian or independent, we can all agree that special interest groups should not be able to force politicians to kill cost-effective programs that work.

It boils down to this:  Parents deserve the freedom to choose the schools that best meet their needs.  And every child, regardless of background, deserves a quality education.  We should not dash their hopes and their futures to appease the politically powerful.

Bob Ewing works on the Institute for Justice’s award-winning media team. His writings have been published by outlets including the Albuquerque Tribune, Baltimore Examiner, BigGovernment.com, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Fee.org and The Freeman. He has secured news coverage in outlets nationwide, including Air America, All Things Considered, The Atlantic, The Economist, Forbes, Fortune Small Business, Hannity & Colmes, Marketplace, Marginal Revolution, National Public Radio, National Law Journal, National Review, Reason Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today.

He lives in Arlington, Va., and enjoys spending his free time running barefoot and rock climbing in West Virginia. He can be reached at bewing@ij.org.