Congress putting D.C. kids in danger

Kathryn Lopez
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Posted: May 22, 2009 8:01 PM

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program saves lives. The fate of the nonprofit outfit, which takes poor children out of failing schools and gives them scholarships to private institutions, is currently up in the air -- in the hands of Congress and, ultimately, the president.

Supporters of the program cite its strong record of academic improvement, but its value goes beyond grades. It quite literally saves lives. Children enrolled in the DCOSP, now in its fifth year, are physically safer than they were in District public schools, some of the most violent in the nation.

President Barack Obama was recently shamed into agreeing that the 1,700 students from low-income families who are currently enrolled in private schools courtesy of DCOSP should be allowed to graduate with the program's support. (Two of the students enrolled attend school with Malia and Sasha Obama at the elite Sidwell Friends School.)

D.C. Opportunity (to coin an appropriate nickname) is an $18 million federally funded program that has garnered support from a diverse crew of Beltway insiders: George W. Bush, for one, along with current and former D.C. mayors Adrian Fenty, Anthony Williams and Marion Barry.

School choice, a longtime conservative-policy staple, has bipartisan support -- even the liberal Washington Post editorial page has blasted a D.C. Opportunity opponent, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, for disingenuousness in her attacks on the program.

In making his case against extending DCOSP, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin claimed earlier this year, "Many benefiting from this program want no questions asked about its efficacy. I think the taxpayers deserve better." I haven't surveyed everyone benefiting from this program, but I do know that we have answers to questions about how well it works.

In its first 19 months of operation, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is moving children in the right direction. Unlike other programs, in which students backslide when they switch schools, some children enrolled in D.C. Opportunity have improved, according to the Department of Education's own evaluation, which cites that "achievement trends are moving in the right direction." And the right direction is happening at a fraction of the cost per pupil than in D.C. public schools. The Obama administration buried the most recent evaluation in a Friday-afternoon release during the appropriations debate over the fate of the program earlier this spring.

But a recent Heritage Foundation report offers a fuller picture of the significance of the scholarship program: it's helping kids in the most dangerous public-school system in the country. A 2007 U.S. Education Department study shows that in 2005, 12.1 percent of D.C. students in grades 9 through 12 "reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property during the previous 12 months."

That's higher than any state in the Union and is well above the national average (7.9 percent). During the 2007-2008 school year, there were 1,828 incidences of crime reported at D.C. public schools, almost half of them involving violence.

Crime is such a reality in the lives of D.C. schoolchildren that 17 percent of the charter group of parents who signed up for the scholarship program considered safety their top reason for doing so.

That elected officials in Washington refuse to fully consider these readily accessible numbers, choosing instead to turn their backs on the children whose lives could be transformed -- even saved-- by this program is a true shame. They're choosing abdication in a modern-day civil-rights movement. Sometime before it adjourns for the summer, Congress will be holding hearings on the future of D.C. Opportunity's future. Dan Lips, co-author of the Heritage report, offers a message to members: "The Obama administration has said that they will prioritize funding for education initiatives by supporting programs that work. If that's the case, they should strongly favor continuing and expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The evidence is clear: students in the program are improving academically compared to their peers who remain in public school. And the evidence also shows that they are in a safer learning environment, which is really important to D.C. parents given the problems in the public school system."

It's important, too, that Congress pays attention to what's going on in its back yard. Lives depend on it.