A year ago this week, more than a dozen students sat in Speaker John Boehner’s viewing box to watch President Obama’s third State of the Union address.
These children were just like every other student in Washington, D.C., except for one thing: they were about to be removed from the best schools they had ever known.
These were students in the District of Columbia’s school voucher program, and the leader they were watching deliver his State of the Union address had, for two years, not only ignored their impassioned pleas for help, but allowed his Department of Education to revoke scholarships from 216 children.
Speaker Boehner — who had long advocated for the program — thought that the sight of these children, sitting quietly in the chamber that night as the world’s most powerful leaders milled about, would inspire legislators, perhaps the president, to take up their cause.
He was on to something.
A year later, these children’s educations are safe. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program — which provides school vouchers for low-income Washington, D.C. students to attend the private schools of their parents’ choice — was reauthorized for five additional years, the result of a tough-as-nails budget battle that Speaker John Boehner won with the ever-present emotional support of the families who desperately wanted that program reauthorized.
Today, more than 2,000 children receive scholarships to go to some of the best schools in Washington, D.C. We know that these children, by virtue of receiving a scholarship, are more likely to graduate than their peers in the public school system.
The victory was not without its heroes. Senator Joe Lieberman, Senator Susan Collins, Senator Dianne Feinstein and so many other high-level lawmakers joined Speaker Boehner in never giving up on the children of Washington, D.C. They fought in the face of tremendous obstacles and roadblocks. And they won a victory for D.C.’s families.
The untold story of the fight to restore the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, however, is not one of big speeches and strong elected leaders. It is the story of parents — Joe Kelly, Patricia William, Carmen Hollassie and Sheila Jackson, to name a few — who sacrificed to fight for something so basic but so powerful: a safe, quality education for their children.
These parents, led by the indefatigable Virginia Walden Ford, did everything from visit Capitol Hill for days on end, to stuff envelopes, to write and deliver testimony, to sit in the offices of hostile city council members.
These families took time off from work, knocked on doors, planned rallies and never — never — backed down.
All of these activities took place behind the scenes, when the news cameras were off and the newspapers were silent on the issue. No matter who controlled Congress, no matter how insurmountable the odds, these parents fought. And they fought for years. And in the process, they became the most powerful voices for school choice in America today.
The history books may say that it was lobbyists and interest groups that saved the D.C. voucher program. That would be wrong. The real saviors of the Opportunity Scholarship Program are the parents of the children that the program serves.
And so, as we conclude National School Choice Week — which galvanizes parents and citizens across the country around the simple premise that parents should be empowered to select the best schools for their children — the fight to restore and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is a healthy reminder that true change in our educational system must be initiated by parents who wish to see the lives of their children transformed.
If parents seek change in school systems, they can get it done. If parents are unhappy with an entrenched status quo, they can upend it. If parents want to face off against the toughest elected opponents of choice, they have the right to do so, and they should. And if parents want laws changed, they can vote on Election Day and raise their voices as loud as possible on each of the other 364 days of the year.
D.C. parents certainly did these things — and more — and they won the fight for school choice.
The story of Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program demonstrates that anything is possible if people are willing to fight for it, to never give up and to never give in. That’s why the students of Washington, D.C. have an unprecedented number of options — because their parents refused to believe that change was impossible.
If parents across the country follow this lead, the 21st century will yield the biggest revolution in education our nation has ever seen. I hope everyone starts taking notes.
Andrew Campanella is the author of four consecutive editions of the “School Choice Yearbook” and has served as senior adviser to the Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children. He is the vice president of public affairs for National School Choice Week.