Tuesday, March 16, 2010
New hope for the District's school voucher programThe Washington Post
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; A18
THE D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program may finally get the attention it is due on the floor of the Senate. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) plans to offer an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that would continue federally funded vouchers for low-income students attending private schools in Washington. This could well be the program's last chance, so it is time to separate fact from fiction about this important initiative.
Mr. Lieberman's proposal would provide for another five years and -- unlike the disappointing "compromise" touted by the Obama administration -- would permit the enrollment of new students. With a vote possible as early as Tuesday, opposition groups are stepping up their attacks. The National Education Association claims the program "has yielded no evidence of positive academic impact on the students the program was designed to assist." Americans United for Separation of Church and State says vouchers have "taken money away from the D.C. public schools." Others, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say it's improper to use taxpayer dollars to fund the religious education of children.
To those who claim that the program hasn't helped targeted students, we offer the results of the rigorous scientific study that Congress insisted on when the pilot program was launched in 2004. "The D.C. voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government's official education research arm so far," wrote Patrick J. Wolf, principal investigator for the Education Department's study. He went on to say: "in my opinion, the bottom line is that the OSP lottery paid off for those students who won it. On average, participating low-income students are performing better in reading because the federal government decided to launch an experimental school choice program in the nation's capital."
Also not true is the charge that public schools have suffered a loss of resources. In fact, additional federal funds were directed to the city's traditional public and charter schools as part of the three-sector initiative establishing the voucher program. If, as critics claim, public schools are suffering, why has D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee emerged as one of the strongest advocates of continuing the voucher program? Unlike some members of Congress, she has a hard time consigning children to dismal futures.
Finally, charges about it being inappropriate to use public money for religious schools ignore the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such scholarship programs to be constitutional in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. Parents can choose to spend their scholarships in parochial schools or secular schools, just as older students do with federal Pell grants.
Perhaps the most important thing being overlooked is the experiences of the parents whose children have been able to go to better schools because vouchers afforded them the means to make that choice. Over and over, parents cite their satisfaction with schools that are safer, where students are more respectful and where teachers better meet their children's needs. Politicians like to say they want to do what is best for kids; here's their chance.
Friday, March 12, 2010
Let senators vote on D.C. school choice
March 12, 2010
More than 1,900 students in our nation's capitol have benefited from the Opportunity Scholarship Program that provided private school scholarships and a way to flee the chronically dysfunctional District of Columbia Public Schools system. The U.S. Department of Education under President Obama has acknowledged the program's success, with the authors of the department's most recent study concluding that students in the program "were performing at statistically higher levels in reading, equivalent to 3.1 months of additional learning."
Despite this record of success for the program, which was approved by Congress in 2004, Obama and the Democratic Congress have eliminated its funding, leaving these students and their parents with no alternative but to return to the failing DCPS.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., however, has been pushing the Senate for months to revive the program and restore hope to its participants. When he offered an amendment earlier this week to the Senate jobs bill, it appeared he would succeed. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., refused to allow the Senate to vote on Lieberman's amendment. It's not hard to figure out why: When Washington's biggest special interest group says jump, Reid and his fellow Senate Democrats ask how high.
That group, of course, is the National Education Association. When the Center for Responsive Politics added up all the campaign contribution data for the 2008 campaign, it turned out that the NEA topped the list, spending more than $57 million on federal and state races, 90 percent of which went to Democrats. So far in the 2010 election cycle, the NEA's pattern of heavily supporting Democrats continues, with 16 Senate Democrats facing re-election battles, including Reid, receiving contributions so far averaging more than $2,100 each.
The NEA has been on a mission for years to kill all traces of school choice programs. Why? Because nothing so threatens the monopoly grip of the heavily unionized public school system as offering an attractive alternative for students and parents. Lieberman's amendment would have done just that for the 1,900 participants in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
As Lindsay Burke and Virginia Walden Ford said recently in National Review, the NEA's ardent opposition to school choice is rich with irony: "Too many of today's schools are failing African American and Hispanic students. In the 1950s, politicians stood at the door to keep African-American students out. Now, they are standing at the door to keep them in."
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Here are some myths and facts about the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to low-income students living in the District of Columbia.
• Myth: the OSP program has failed to improve academic achievement:
Fact: This is a false statement. The congressionally mandated IES study, using the most rigorous evaluation design, found statistically significant gains in reading for the target population – low income DC school children. According the Dr. Wolf, the principal investigator for the IES study, “the reading impact of the DC voucher program is the largest achievement impact yet reported.” and “..the DC voucher program has proven to be the most effective education policy evaluated by the federal government’s official education research arm so far.” Of the 11 rigorous experimental studies of education interventions sponsored by IES (the US Department of Education’s official research arm), only 3 have reported any statistically significant achievement gains and the reading gains from the OSP are the largest reported so far.
• Myth: Critics then say there were no gains for the target population, students from schools in need of improvement.
Fact: This is a false statement. The target population of the IES study was low-income DC students. The study found statistically significant achievement gains for those students. Students from schools in need of improvement were a subgroup designated under law to get priority in the award of scholarships. The evaluation showed that for this subgroup, as well as most of the other subgroups, the average reading and math scores were higher after 3 years, just not by a statistically significant amount. Researchers know that it is harder to find statistically significant differences among subgroups of students in a study because the subgroups are smaller than the overall group, so less evidence is available to push a gain over the statistical significance bar.
• Myth: The DC OSP program takes away money from public schools.
Fact: The OSP program has never diverted funds from public schools. From the beginning, the program has been part of a 3-prong initiative, begun under the leadership of DC Mayor Tony Williams, to provide new funds to DC public schools, DC public charter schools, and the OSP program. Initially, the three prongs were funded in equal amounts. In recent years, DC public and charter schools have received more funding that the OSP.
• Myth: The OSP program is being imposed on the District of Columbia.
Fact: The OSP program began under the leadership of Mayor Tony Williams. Mayor Fenty, DC Education Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and a majority of the DC Council have expressed support for continuation of the OSP program under the 3-sector initiative. It is also supported by parents in the District according to polls.
• Myth: The OSP program is not the solution to failing schools.
Fact: The OSP program has always been part of a 3-prong program to support DC public schools, charter schools and the OSP. The District per pupil expenditure for public school students is amongst the highest in the nation at $17,653 per student. Yet DC students in public schools score amongst the worst on national tests. The OSP (at less than half the per pupil cost) was never designed as the solution, but it was designed as part of the solution to deliver a quality education to disadvantaged District students while reform efforts continue. DC Education Chancellor Michelle Rhee has said it will take many years to turn around the troubled District schools, and in the mean time, many poor families are looking for a way to provide a quality education for their children. Our amendment specifies an intent to reauthorize the program at least until the DC public schools have made progress.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Congress shouldn't betray D.C. scholarship program
By Kelly Amis and Joseph E. Robert Jr.
Monday, March 8, 2010; A13
When President Obama signed a $450 billion spending bill in December, his signature effectively dismantled a small, successful education program benefiting low-income children in the nation's capital. This week, a bipartisan coalition led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) is calling on Senate colleagues to restore it.
Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may prevent the Senate from even voting on the measure. Who wants to vote against an effective program serving poor minority children?
Congress needed only to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program -- as the local community asked it to do and as the research should have compelled it to do -- but the members who mattered ignored the families outside their white marble offices, even rescinding scholarships to hundreds of hopeful students.
Obama could have stood up for these children, who only want the same opportunities that he had and that his daughters now have. Instead, his education secretary, Arne Duncan, proffered an argument that would be funny if it weren't so sad: Scholarships for poor students aren't worth supporting because not enough of them are given out.
Note to Duncan: You could give out more.
What's an education secretary in charge of $159 billion (and counting) to do?
Duncan had the temerity to admit that Opportunity Scholarship students "were safe and learning and doing well . . . [but] we can't be satisfied with saving 1 or 2 percent of children and letting 98 or 99 percent down." This is a false choice. But, were it fair, his answer would be to let down 100 percent instead?
Fortunately for the secretary, his children won't be in that 100 percent; he moved his family to Virginia. For the schools. He explained that he "didn't want to try to save the country's children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children's education."
Some say the scholarship program isn't needed because charter schools can fill the void. But charters and private school scholarships are not mutually exclusive reforms, and while the District's charter program is vibrant, it is far from providing all local students with an excellent education.
Indeed, charter schools are just part of the District's "three-sector strategy" toward education reform. This strategy, which we helped to design, presumes that all children deserve excellent schools and that every school effectively and appropriately educating students -- whether traditional, private or charter -- should be applauded and supported.
The strategy is working. The competition of new options created a landscape in which Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee could take steps only dreamed of by prior administrations: refining the downtown bureaucracy, closing near-empty schools and shifting the savings to academic programs, and holding teachers more accountable.
One might think that Rhee, as chancellor, would have supported ending the Opportunity Scholarships. Instead, she told Congress that it would be a challenge for public schools to reabsorb the students and provide them with an equivalent education.
With their support for the scholarships, Rhee and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty put children's futures ahead of politics, just as former Mayor Tony Williams, former D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous and former School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz did when the program was created in 2004.
Unfortunately, congressional leaders -- especially Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) -- crumpled before teachers union threats, led by American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, who declared everything open to negotiation "except vouchers."
The unions' antagonism toward private school scholarships (they've practically made "voucher" a dirty word) lies not only in their constant drumbeat that scholarships "steal" money from public schools; it's also the fear of losing members. If more students can access private schools, more teachers will eventually find jobs in that sector, and the unions won't have access to their often-compulsory dues.
And this might jeopardize the teachers unions' position as the single-largest contributor to federal-level political campaigns in America.
Norton's opposition to scholarships for local children might seem particularly confusing -- until you realize that her largest political donor is the AFT.
In a Charlie Rose interview, Weingarten referred to teachers as "powerless." As a group? Hardly. "Powerless" describes low-income students trapped in miserable schools.
Ending Opportunity Scholarships would be a tragedy for low-income parents everywhere because it says: Even when an education program works, the powers that be will tear it from the hands of children if it threatens their hold on the system.
We applaud Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), who join Lieberman in working to restore the program. And we hope their colleagues -- and the administration -- will have the courage to stand up for local children, too.
Kelly Amis is founder of Loudspeaker Films and a former public school teacher. Joseph E. Robert Jr. is a D.C. education philanthropist.