School choice changes lives, one scholarship at a time

Erik Telford President, Franklin Center
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The look in Adrienne Lynch’s eyes as she tells you the story of the scholarship that changed her family’s world tells you all you need to know about the power of school choice. Lynch and her three daughters were among the thousands of low-income families in Washington to benefit from the district’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. Sadly, President Obama is closing doors for DC’s needy families by eliminating this groundbreaking program at a time when he should be encouraging states nationwide to follow Washington’s lead.

DC’s school choice program, among the most aggressive in the nation at its launch in 2003, was designed to help parents like Adrienne who wanted to rescue their children from failing inner-city schools but couldn’t afford to pay private tuition. Before the program launched, Washington’s local bureaucrats used arbitrarily-drawn lines to decide whose children go to which schools — and if a school is failing or doesn’t meet a child’s unique needs, there was nothing a parent can do about it. But when Lynch was selected to receive scholarships for her daughters, she was empowered to choose the schools that gave them the best chance to grow and thrive.

These are the stories the media doesn’t tell about education reform. When coverage focuses on the back-and-forth between unions, education trade groups, and politicians, the impact of programs like D.C.’s on the lives of children — whom, lest we forget, are the focal point of the entire education system — slips through the cracks. Adrienne Lynch’s eldest daughter recently graduated from college, and her two younger sisters are both well on their way, all because of a program that’s worked for their family.

School choice is working just as well for families around the district. Students who receive scholarships have a graduation rate of over 90 percent — 35 points higher than those who don’t. These students also posted significant gains in reading, in many cases escaping schools where fewer than 20 percent of children test at grade level.  It’s no wonder that 74 percent of D.C. residents support this program.

Unfortunately one of the most powerful opponents of opportunity scholarships is a DC resident himself and lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Obama has twice moved to eliminate funding for the program, which requires about one one hundredth of one percent of the federal education budget to operate. In fact, it costs the government about $10,000 more to educate a child in a failing public school than it does to grant that child’s family a scholarship.

With DC’s schools dead last in the nation in both reading and math, it’s no surprise that the Obamas opted to send their daughters to an ultra-prestigious private academy instead of a failing public school. Yet low-income D.C. residents have been stripped of the ability to make the same decisions for their children. The message that anti-reform politicians send — that wealth and ZIP code should determine a child’s future — is demoralizing and fundamentally wrong.

Washington once led the nation in the fight to empower parents, but as the White House puts the brakes on progress in DC, states have taken up the mantle. States from Indiana to Louisiana are returning power to parents by granting them the freedom of choice and the flexibility to use their own tax dollars to place their children in the schools that best fit their needs — whether an assigned public school, a school in a nearby district, or a charter, private, parochial, or virtual school. These reforms are also helping to improve performance at traditional public schools by alleviating overcrowding and giving teachers more time to focus on the needs of each student.

Education reform is the key social mobility issue of our era. Every parent — whether President of the United States or a low-income mom like Adrienne Lynch — deserves the basic freedom to send their child to the school that will best help them grow and thrive. It’s time for elected leaders, in Washington and across the country, to stand by these families and put children first.

Erik Telford is Senior Vice President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.