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DC Liberals Unite With Conservatives To Push Education Bill

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter

A legislative initiative aimed at protecting charter schools in Washington, D.C., is gaining bipartisan support from conservatives in Congress, the District’s Democratic mayor and the liberal-dominated D.C. Council.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is attempting to guide a bill reauthorizing funding measures for D.C. public schools, including the city’s voucher and charter school programs. The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR) gives key funding to D.C. public and private schools that focus on vouchers for students from impoverished communities, giving them chances to pursue meaningful educations, reports The Washington Post.

In a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in March, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and eight Council members gave a public endorsement of the SOAR Reauthorization Act, imploring Ryan and fellow representatives to pass the key legislation before the end of the current Congress session. Three of those Council members previously opposed the legislation.

Bowser noted concern over a competing bill, originally authored by Sen. Ted Cruz in January, called the Educational Freedom Accounts Act, which seeks to create private savings accounts so families have the sole choice of their children’s educations. The bill would redirect funds away from District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter school programs in the city. Bowser and D.C. Council members say the bill would not only destroy the city’s public charter school program, but also threaten the overall performance of DCPS, at a time when city public schools are finally 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 Speaker Ryan. “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.”

School choice stands as a rare issue that brings liberals and conservatives in Washington, D.C. together. Graduation rates in DCPS are sitting above the average, showing the first real signs of sustained improvement in over a decade. Many credit this recent success to school initiatives, as public charter schools represent nearly half of all public school students in the District.

Strong opposition to the District’s school choice plan presents a very real threat to its future, with labor unions and other opponents labeling the policy as unfair. President Barack Obama voiced his disagreement with the school choice law in 2011. President Obama argued the bill focuses on creating limited opportunities instead of focusing on a better public school system for everyone, reports Heritage.

“The Administration opposes targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools rather than creating access to great public schools for every child,” read a statement from the White House in 2011.

The Washington Post Editorial Board lambasted the usual suspects of opposition in a March article, such as unions, for threatening the future of the key legislation. The Post argues a false narrative claiming the school choice program was forced on the District against its will by Congress is absurd, however they are hopeful Mayor Bowser’s letter to Congress dispelled that fiction.

“As has happened before with all-too-depressing frequency since the scholarships were established in 2004, the program is under attack from unions and other opponents,” read The Washington Post Editorial Board’s article. “If Congress doesn’t reauthorize the program, funding could dry up, with no new students accepted after the 2016-2017 school year. The scholarships provide a lifeline to low-income and underserved families, giving them the school choice that more affluent families take as a given.”

Joining the growing coalition advocating to reauthorize the SOAR Act are The Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education, which pledged their support Monday.

“The SOAR Act makes quality education options more affordable and accessible for low-income students, especially students of color in our nation’s capital,” read a letter to congressional leadership from The Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “We support this legislation and would like to work with you and your colleagues to see it become law.”

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