President Obama made education a big part of his speech Tuesday night, complete with a stirring call for reform. So we’ll be curious to see how he handles the dismaying attempt by Democrats in Congress to crush education choice for 1,700 poor kids in the District of Columbia.
The omnibus spending bill now moving through the House includes language designed to kill the Opportunity Scholarship Program offering vouchers for poor students to opt out of rotten public schools. The legislation says no federal funds can be used on the program beyond 2010 unless Congress and the D.C. City Council reauthorize it. Given that Democrats control both bodies — and that their union backers hate school choice — this amounts to a death sentence.
Republicans passed the program in 2004, with help from Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, and it has been extremely popular. Families receive up to $7,500 a year to attend the school of their choice. That’s a real bargain, given that D.C. public schools spend $14,400 per pupil on average, among the most in the country.
To qualify, a student’s household income must be at or below 185% of the poverty level. Some 99% of the participants are minority, and the average annual income is $23,000 for a family of four. A 2008 Department of Education evaluation found that participants had higher reading scores than their peers who didn’t receive a scholarship, and there are four applicants for each voucher.