Obama’s local education opportunity

Pete Hoekstra Shillman Senior Fellow, Investigative Project on Terrorism
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President Obama recently spoke at a Virginia middle school on the topic of education reform, highlighting the need to restructure No Child Left Behind before the start of the next school year. Fixing NCLB and returning power to the states is certainly important, but Obama has a more immediate opportunity at hand. Before this school year is even finished, he can boldly lead on a bi-partisan education issue critical to local families in our nation’s capital.

Congressional leaders are currently debating the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gave low-income families in Washington, D.C., an alternative to failing public schools by granting partial scholarships for private-school tuition.

Since the program’s inception in 2004, private schools have been doing a phenomenal job of educating some of Washington’s poorest inner-city children. More than 3,000 scholarships have been awarded so students could attend schools such as Sidwell Friends, Cornerstone, Gonzaga, and the parochial schools of the Catholic Archdiocese.

These students have excelled in the classroom. A report from the Department of Education shows that students offered scholarships performed better on reading tests than their non-voucher peers. Research also shows that that these scholarship students had statistically significant higher graduation rates. And scholarship parents are more satisfied with their children’s educational experiences and safety.

However, despite the program’s proven success, Democrats chose not to re-authorize it in 2009. With an average household income of $23,000, scholarship families were left with few other options to the D.C. public-school system, which ranks 51st nationally in student achievement and has a graduation rate of around 55 percent.

Congress is now re-visiting the issue. House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced the “Scholarships for Opportunity and Results” (SOAR) Act in January. SOAR would restore the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, authorizing scholarships of up to $8,000 per year for elementary students, and $12,000 per year for high-school students. Compared to the more than $18,000 spent per student in the D.C. public-school system, this is a great deal for educating children in a higher-performing school.

Last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform passed the SOAR Act by a margin of 21-14. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said, “Today’s vote continues the bipartisan momentum to restore educational choice and opportunity for schoolchildren in the District of Columbia.”

Real change is taking place on a daily basis in the lives of the District’s low-income, inner-city children. More than 1,000 students today have a new chance in life because they are in schools that their parents chose as the best fit for them. They are learning and succeeding, but the future of other low-income students is in jeopardy.

President Obama has an opportunity in the coming weeks to demonstrate that his education reform goes beyond rhetoric by standing in support of these local parents who are trying with all their might to find a better future for their children. The president should join Speaker Boehner, Sen. Lieberman, and Rep. Issa in leading bi-partisan support of the SOAR Act. Today it is the education opportunity clearly knocking on his door.

Pete Hoekstra is a former U.S. Representative from Michigan and a visiting distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.