Most of us remember the stellar advertising campaign A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste designed at giving underprivileged college students a bite at the educational apple. This week Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) decided to use this concept to become an advocate for middle school and high school students as well. Lieberman and five colleagues weighed in on D.C. politics, filing an amendment to a tax extenders bill to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP).
The D.C. OSP was created in 2004 under the Bush administration. These $7,500 scholarships made it possible for students to attend a private school. The students that used these scholarships felt a greater degree of safety as well as made major academic strides. A federally mandated evaluation of the program also showed these private school students received the equivalent of 3.7 months of additional learning than others. This has been done while actually reducing the District’s costs as these students only received half of the city’s $15,000-per-pupil assessment.
At a press conference last month, Sen. Susan Collins (R., ME) stated that if the scholarship is not saved, 86 percent of these students will be forced to return to failing schools. In that same press conference, Senator Lieberman said, “If Dr. King were here today, he’d be fighting his heart out for the OSP.” The Senator vowed then to find a way to save the D.C. OSP.
Before we talk more about the scholarship and its merits, let’s go back to 2004 and find out what the environment was that led to the program’s initiation. D.C. schools led in violence nationally, while ranking academically near the bottom. In 2004, 14 percent of students said they didn’t go to class because they felt unsafe. As a result of this unprecedented violent atmosphere, private money also was invested in the city to curb violence. A personal hero of mine, Robert Woodson, was given $1 million by the Chevron/Texaco Corp. to support his Violence-Free Zone initiative. Woodson is the director of The National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington.
The million-dollar grant focused on just four elementary schools, funding several after-school activities based on the Violence-Free Zone’s seven-year track record at that time. The initiative had successfully quelled gang banging and violence in DC’s Benning Terrace public housing complex and received national acclaim that led to its replication in cities like Dallas.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.