Since 2004, a federally funded private-school voucher program has offered a lifeline to a few thousand inner-city kids in Washington, DC. Its initial five-year authorization is up for congressional renewal this week - and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, chaired by Democrats David Obey and Daniel Inouye, respectively, are trying to ever-so-subtly unravel it.
The bill on the table fails to reauthorize the program for another five-year term, as would be usual. Instead, it only funds the program for another year. Worse, it would grant a new veto power over the program to the DC City Council - so that the program could be killed down the line by either Congress or the City Council.
It's clear that congressional Democrats want this program dead, but are hoping someone else will pull the plug so that they can't be blamed for kicking 1,900 kids out of independent and parochial schools they've come to depend on. Chairman Obey (D-Wis.) has reportedly urged DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to prepare for the return of voucher students to DCPS.
Think of it as Myanmar on the Potomac: When Myanmar's ruling junta blocked desperately needed aid from reaching its cyclone-ravaged people last May, the world was outraged. How could a nation's leaders do that and still live with themselves? We might well ask our Democratic leaders in Washington the same question - for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program provides a desperately needed escape from the city's disastrous public schools.
Just listen to the kids themselves. The Web site VoicesOfSchoolChoice.org offers a collection of videos in which voucher students and parents explain what they've gained from the program, and what they left behind in public schools. Be ready to feel a lump in your throat.
"My girls used to cry about using the restrooms [in public schools] 'cause they're so unclean," comments Ayesha McKinney, a single mom whose daughters have received Opportunity Scholarships. She adds: "There's no reason for kids to be in this unsafe, unclean environment."
Safety is a big issue with the voucher families - both for its own sake and for its impact on their children's education. Carlos Battle, a soft-spoken teen, notes: "If I was in the public school, I'd have to think more about protecting myself than about learning." He explains, "There wasn't a lot of actual learning going on in the public school. I wanted a challenge." If Congress doesn't reauthorize the program, he concludes, "that's basically taking a lot of the kids' dreams away."
Voucher parents are significantly happier with their schools than are public-school parents, but critics complain that the program had yet to raise overall academic achievement by a statistically significant margin - after just its second year of operation. Putting aside the fact that DC vouchers have significantly improved test scores for certain subgroups of students, this criticism ignores a crucial point: The voucher value is less than a quarter of total per-pupil spending in DC public schools.
The vouchers are worth an average of $6,000; last year, the District was spending $24,600 per student. If you could save 75 percent on a purchase, get the same or better quality of service, and know you'd be happier with the result, wouldn't you do it?
It seems congressional Democrats would not.
Of course, they have other things to think about besides what's best for kids - like getting re-elected. Public-school-employee unions see even tiny private-school-choice programs as a threat, and those unions are the backbone of the Democratic Party.
So, just as Myanmar's military dictators rebuffed international assistance because they saw it as a threat to their political power, Democrats in Washington appear willing to extinguish the dreams of a few thousand poor kids to protect their political base.
Democratic leaders no doubt hope that they can sweep all of this under the rug before the next election. But sooner or later, the public is going to stop believing the myth that more money for bureaucrats and fewer choices for parents are the solutions to America's educational woes.
When that time comes, a harsh scrutiny will be turned on all those who propped up the wretched school monopolies that are clipping so many children's wings. And whatever political harm Democrats might suffer from fully reauthorizing the DC voucher program now, it will pale compared the party's fate if it blindly rides the public-school status quo all the way to its inevitable collapse.