- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

With Congress phasing out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, D.C. parents and students are looking to President Obama and his administration to step in and save the federal initiative, which has given hope for a brighter future to thousands of families. However, Mr. Obama has been silent on the issue. And Education Secretary Arne Duncan has gone along with congressional Democrats’ plans for phasing out the scholarship program.

The secretary was asked recently why he didn’t support the Opportunity Scholarship Program — given that the Department of Education’s own evaluation found it was benefiting participating students. He explained that he was focusing on reforms to turn around the entire public school system, not just save a few children: “As a country, we like to save one or two children in a neighborhood and let the other 500 drown and then go home and sleep well at night. I think we have to be much more ambitious as a federal government.”

To be sure, everyone recognizes the urgent need to provide a quality education for all children living in Washington and across the country. However, as Mr. Duncan certainly knows, reforming public schools takes time. D.C. families have been waiting for decades for the various reform plans to fix our broken public school system. A child in school today simply can’t afford to wait a few more years to receive a quality education.

That is why we have a moral obligation to rescue as many children as we can from our broken public schools while we work overtime to turn those schools around. I am reminded of the example of Harriet Tubman — the black abolitionist and famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. While she worked to abolish slavery, Tubman made 19 trips into the South and transported 300 slaves into freedom.

Tubman knew she couldn’t personally rescue all of the slaves in America, but she knew she could save some, and what an amazing difference it made in each of their lives.

With the Opportunity Scholarship Program, we see the same thing happening: Children are being saved. Children are thriving in the schools their parents choose. They’re safe and able to focus on academics. Parents are filled with joy that their children have a chance for a bright future.

Mr. Obama should take the time to meet children participating in the program. Students like Ronald Holassie, a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School, and Carlos Battle, a senior at Georgetown Day School. Both are thriving academically and destined to make their parents and the community proud.

Some former Opportunity Scholarship students are thriving in college. Students like Tiffany Dunston (a sophomore at Syracuse University) and Jordan White (a freshman at Oberlin College) credit their Opportunity Scholarships for their great success in school. Without this special opportunity, they might have been lost in a school that didn’t nurture their talents.

D.C. families watched with interest as Mr. Duncan and his family chose to live in Northern Virginia to be able to enroll his children in a good public school system. Like the families I work with, Mr. Duncan knew he didn’t want his children’s education to be sacrificed while he worked to fix the nation’s public schools. Of course, the Obama family also chose to bypass the District’s troubled public education system when Mr. and Mrs. Obama chose a top private school for their daughters.

The bottom line is that every child’s life is precious. As we tell students every day, there is no limit to what you can accomplish if you receive a quality education. Mr. Obama knows this. After all, he is our greatest school-choice success story. As a youngster, Mr. Obama received a scholarship to attend a top private school in Hawaii. He clearly took advantage of that opportunity, which led him into some of our nation’s finest colleges and onto his historic path to the White House.

Mr. Obama has the chance to pass on that special opportunity to thousands of students living in the nation’s capital by supporting the expansion and reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Of course, saving these children won’t end the hard work of fixing our public school system to ensure that all children receive a quality education. That project will take time.

In the meantime, it’s our moral obligation to save as many children as we can. It’s what Harriet Tubman would do.

• Virginia Walden Ford is executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice.