Delay, confusion is not an option for D.C. education reform

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Congress is poised to decide whether aggressive, bold education reform in the District of Columbia will continue at an accelerated pace, or whether the interests of adults will trump the best interests of students. The time has come to put aside the needs of special interests and do what’s right for children — right now and by any means necessary.

To me, and to 74 percent of District residents, the solution is clear: the District of Columbia should fight to become a model for the nation when it comes to turning around its school system, fostering an environment that is healthy for the creation of charter schools, and providing low-income children with immediate educational options through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) — a school voucher initiative.

This approach — improving public schools, promoting charter schools, and providing for Opportunity Scholarships — is known as the three-sector initiative to education reform in the District. It was championed by Democrats and Republicans and was implemented during the tenure of Democratic Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

In the U.S. Senate, two of the District’s most vigorous proponents, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), are working with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and other leaders to protect this effective approach to education reform. Speaker John Boehner is leading the fight in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation that this bipartisan team has introduced — the SOAR Act — would maintain the federal government’s commitment to the three-sector initiative and invest $60 million annually — $300 million over five years — for D.C. public schools, public charter schools, and the OSP.

Passage of the SOAR Act is essential this year, especially in light of the fact that the OSP was slated for elimination by the Obama administration and Congress last year — for no good reason. As a result, low-income children who currently receive scholarships are uncertain about whether they will be able to continue attending the schools of their parents’ choice. Meanwhile, other children are currently prohibited from participating in the successful program.

Elimination of the OSP would be devastating. A federal study demonstrated that students who were offered vouchers, and used them, posted graduation rates of 91 percent. Parental satisfaction with the program is overwhelming. A majority of the D.C. City Council — and an overwhelming three-quarters of District residents — want the program to continue.

Unfortunately, opponents — namely national teachers’ unions and entrenched bureaucrats — have twisted the facts about the OSP. Now, these groups and individuals are distorting reality completely, claiming that Senators Lieberman and Collins seek to defund D.C.’s public schools if the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program isn’t restored.

These claims are bogus, and they ignore the reality that Senators Lieberman and Collins have been strong advocates for funding and voting rights in the District. In fact, Senators Lieberman and Collins were even singled out for praise by Council Chairman Kwame Brown for their “sincere commitment to identifying resources to help our city” during an education reform hearing on February 16, 2011.

To date, the District of Columbia has received nearly $400 million as a result of the three-sector federal initiative for educational improvement in the District, and the SOAR Act would continue that federal commitment. In addition, the tens of millions of dollars, per year, that the federal government spends on education in the District is slated to continue regardless of the fate of the OSP.

What riles opponents of reform is that the funding for all three sectors is tied together, which will ensure that every available option remains on the table for children in low-income families who would otherwise be forced to wait years to escape a failing school or get into one of the city’s top charter schools. To supporters of the rights of children and families, this is a good thing — because it accelerates accountability and improvements in our public schools while giving children immediate educational options.

Opponents believe that it would be better for Congress to simply write D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray a blank check for D.C. public schools — without insisting on an accounting of the expenditures, which was the case for previous appropriations — and forget the educational crisis that plagues our capital city. This notion ignores the intent of the authors of the legislation, which is to improve educational outcomes for all of D.C.’s K-12 children without regard to zip code.

Those of us who advocate for D.C.’s families have debated and defended the OSP’s effectiveness for the past two years. The results are clear — sky-high graduation rates, overwhelming parental satisfaction, clear academic progress in reading and peace of mind for families. Continued talk may be helpful, but action is far better. We cannot afford to wait any longer. We must rally behind Senators Lieberman, Collins, and Feinstein — and House Speaker John Boehner — and give low-income children in the District of Columbia an immediate opportunity to receive the best education possible. The three-sector initiative is the right approach. We have no higher calling than preparing our children for excellence and achievement, and there is no more time for delay. The SOAR Act must become reality.

Kevin P. Chavous is the chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.