- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

President Obama is scheduled to address the nation on the importance of education on Sept. 8, when most children have returned to America’s classrooms for the start of the 2009-10 school year. But for more than 200 D.C. youths, the prospects of being educated at a school of their parents’ choosing remains doubtful.

In spring, 216 children learned they would not receive scholarships. The decision, made by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, forced the hands of federal lawmakers, school-choice advocates and parents such as Latasha Bennett, a single parent of two who said she was “devastated and angry” that a federally funded scholarship for her daughter had been withdrawn. Her son attends Naylor Road School in Southeast on a voucher, and Miss Bennett wants her daughter to attend kindergarten there.

She and other voucher proponents say that though time is running out as the Aug. 24 back-to-school date fast approaches, they will continue to fight for D.C. children.

Proponents will gather Thursday outside the offices of the U.S. Department of Education in Southwest to restate their case.

“When I received that letter, it was like a slap in the face,” said Miss Bennett, whose son, Nico, receives a scholarship while daughter Nia has been denied. “I sincerely hope that Secretary Duncan will restore the dreams and educational futures of my children this week.”

The vouchers are made possible by the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which began in 2004, during the Bush administration and Republican-led Congress. More than 1,700 children are participating in the program, and each receives up to $7,500 to attend a nonpublic school. Forty-nine schools are participating or have participated in the program. Only children whose families have an annual income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines may qualify for the vouchers. For a family of three, the guideline is $18,310. Miss Bennett’s annual income is estimated at $12,000.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s only congressional representative, began working with Congress in 2008 to phase out the program. Mrs. Norton, a native of Washington who attended the segregated D.C. public school system, is in the minority in the city.

A poll conducted by Braun Research Inc. and released this summer shows that 79 percent of D.C. parents with school-age children oppose eliminating the voucher program and 74 percent have a favorable view of it. Also, 56 percent of residents want the program expanded.

The survey also found that 47 percent of D.C. voters would prefer to send their children to a private school.

Mrs. Norton’s opposition to the scholarship program also contrasts with that of the majority on D.C. Council. In a letter addressed to Mr. Duncan and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, seven of 13 lawmakers said withdrawing the vouchers would dash the dreams and curb the aspirations of poor families. “We believe we simply cannot turn our backs on these families because doing so will deny their children the quality education they deserve,” the letter said.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has said she is a “huge proponent of choice.”

Former Mayor Anthony A. Williams and former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous also continue to strongly support a breadth of school-choice programs.

There is bipartisan support for the scholarships on Capitol Hill.

Several senators introduced the Scholarship for Opportunity and Results Act on July 30 and voted it out of committee on the next day. Called the SOAR Act, the legislation would mandate vouchers for “low-income parents residing in the District of Columbia, particularly parents of students who attend elementary schools or secondary schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring.” Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, introduced the bill. Co-sponsors include Sens. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, and Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat.

“Many parents in the District of Columbia who work tirelessly to make sure their children receive a solid education deserve a choice,” Mr. Byrd said on the day the measure was introduced. “If they believe their teachers and principals are failing them and their children, then they should have the choice to seek other educational opportunities. The SOAR Act will provide that opportunity.”

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