The Democratic mayor of Washington, D.C., and a majority of the liberal D.C. Council voiced their support for Speaker Paul Ryan’s efforts to reauthorize legislation aimed at funding charter schools in the District’s public school system.
In a letter written to congressional leadership, Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser and eight D.C. Council members said they back passing of the SOAR Reauthorization Act before the end of Congress’s current session. The law reauthorizes the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR) and passed in the House in October.
The bill faces opposition from both Republicans and Democrats. The bill provides large funding for charter schools, with which many in the liberal wing of the Democratic party fundamentally disagree. President Barack Obama opposed reauthorization of the SOAR Act in 2011, arguing a policy that gives opportunities to some, in this case low income earners, and not to others is fundamentally unfair. Conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz want to go further and take the District government out of the process completely, creating private education savings accounts which families can use to make their own choice on where their child attends school.
“When we give more families a choice, more students succeed,” Ryan said in a Tuesday press release. “This initiative embodies the American Idea – the notion that the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life. The support of Mayor Bowser and most of the city council gives this legislation an important boost as we work to get it to the president’s desk.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and seven other Council members gave their support for the bill and voiced concern over legislation running counter to the SOAR Act. Congress recently introduced a bill called the Educational Freedom Accounts Act, originally introduced by Cruz in the Senate, which would redirect funds for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools to private savings accounts parents can use to make their own choice. Bowser says the bill would gut the city’s charter school program and threatens the DCPS at a time when the school system is on the rise.
“SOAR Act funding for DCPS has been used to support initiatives that reward and increase retention of high performing teachers and principals,” Bowser writes in the letter to congressional leadership. “Public charter schools in the District represent 44 percent of the public school population of more than 85,000 students with 62 public charter schools on 115 campuses. These funds have also been used to improve academic achievement, teacher and leader quality and recruitment, instructional support, and graduation pathways.”
Aligning with Speaker Ryan and other Republicans is a rare move for the Democratic mayor who clashed with House Republicans in the past. Bowser challenged the Republican controlled Congress in 2015 over the city’s legalization of marijuana. Congress is preventing the District from regulating the substance and the Democratic mayor continues to battle House republicans over the issue.
Mayor Bowser and the Council members note the federal funds payed through the SOAR Act are key to the future success of DCPS schools and are “inextricably linked” to the city’s charter school program. Bowser notes that DCPS is seeing success for the first time in decades, with graduation rates above the city’s average. Many credit the success to the expansion of school choice initiatives in the District in recent years.
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