Opinion

‘Why don’t the congressmen who look like us want us to go to better schools?’

Kevin Chavous Executive Counsel, American Federation for Children

As you read this, Democratic state legislators across the country are doing something that, 20 years ago, would have been considered politically taboo.

They’re supporting school choice.

More specifically, they’re backing not only public charter schools, but opportunity scholarships and scholarship tax credit programs, initiatives that allow low- and middle-income parents to select private schools for their children.

What was once an issue with predominantly Republican support has officially entered the political mainstream, with Democrats and Republicans working to forge legislation that will help children in states across the country.

Why are leading state-level Democrats — like State Senator Anthony A. Williams in Pennsylvania, State Senator Ray Lesniak in New Jersey, State Representative Austin Badon in Louisiana, State Representative Gwyn Clarke-Reed in Florida, State Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan in Georgia, State Representative Jason Fields in Wisconsin and so many others — courageously supporting dramatic education reform, even when they’d likely win reelection without touching the issue?

Because they realize that without more quality choices, low-income children will be confined to failing and underperforming schools and that an entire generation of children could be lost to mediocre jobs, to lives on the streets, or worse. They see a colossal achievement gap between low- and higher-income children that must be closed, and they see the arguments of special interests — that “more time” and “more money” will fix our schools — as unhelpful evasion.

These leaders fight for school choice because they believe that when it comes to educating our children, we must act by any means necessary. These leaders fight for educational equality because they believe that the lives of students are more important than the size of the coffers of special interests. These leaders are putting children first and understand the urgency of putting ALL options on the table.

I’m proud to stand with them.

Late last year, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) held its annual Black Elected Officials Conference in New Jersey. Over 200 African-American elected officials and staff — mainly Democrats — gathered to discuss the need to advance educational choice across the country. It was an event that should give hope to hundreds of thousands of children across the country, because it sent a message to families and to children: your lawmakers care about your future.

Fast forward to another event, just one week ago.

At a hearing before a U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee to discuss the future of the highly effective D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, there were dozens of African-American and Latino children who came to support the program. The OSP, which provides low-income children with access to private schools, has been remarkably effective at increasing parental satisfaction and student graduation rates. As a result, it has been a lifeline to many D.C. children — 90 percent of whom are African-American and 100 percent of whom are low-income.

But at the hearing, students watched as members of the Congressional Black Caucus simply deferred to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a longtime opponent of school choice and the OSP, as she railed against the program.

Later, Delegate Norton, in her partisan zeal, obliquely referred to children who participate in the program as “lab rats” of Republicans, and argued that her constituents in D.C. only support the program because they’ll take any “free money” that can be “passed out” to them. It was a shameful and ignorant thing to say, especially considering that four years of parental focus groups on the Opportunity Scholarship Program shattered the myth that low-income parents cannot make informed decisions about where to send their children to school.

The children who attended this hearing were shocked to see their own congressional delegate and members of the Congressional Black Caucus speak against their program. Afterwards, one of the children even asked, “Why don’t the congressmen who look like us want us to go to better schools?”

I ask the same question. It’s past time that the same bipartisanship we see in states across the country reached the U.S. House of Representatives, especially the venerable Congressional Black Caucus.

By any measure, by any test, the highly effective D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should be discussed as a model for the nation. Instead, it’s on life support. And so, as the House prepares to vote on the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, I hope that Democrats in the House will follow the lead of their colleagues in statehouses across the country — and even in the Senate, where the scholarship program enjoys bipartisan support.

Lawmakers of both parties must put aside ideology and do what’s right for children, just like they’re doing in states across the country. D.C.’s children should benefit from the same level of collaboration, cooperation, and agreement.

Our future depends on it.

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