Perhaps it’s an unfortunate symptom of debates in Washington, but for whatever reason, for seven years the conversation about the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) always was dominated by one thing: politics.
But somehow, that conversation took a surprising apolitical turn. At an event June 25 to help parents apply for Opportunity Scholarships for their children, I didn’t hear any talk of politics. For an entire day, hundreds of people streamed through the Renaissance Hotel near the Washington Convention Center to learn about various aspects of the program, discussing it with a depth we could only dream of getting from members of Congress. How did the topic of school vouchers escape its political stranglehold?
Ask the parents. When I did, there was no talk of ideology or partisanship. Nobody mentioned whom they had voted for in the last election. The hundreds of parents in attendance expressed concern for only one thing: giving their children the best education possible. And with higher graduation rates, improved reading scores and overwhelming parental satisfaction, the OSP gives them that shot.
Some of them were happy finally to have some agency over something as important as education in their child’s life. Many parents who previously had had children in the program were helping newcomers. Others even embraced, screamed with joy or prayed after they completed the application process.
Throughout the long effort to reauthorize the program, the opposition’s only true criticism was on political grounds: that the existence of the highly successful program, which raises all of the District’s educational boats, is opposed by some very powerful special interests. There rarely was talk about the real heart of the matter: of people flocking to sign up their children. Many of these parents already have seen their lives changed simply by the prospect of receiving a voucher for their child; they know that, for the first time, they have a choice in determining the education that best fits their child.
The OSP is a rare opportunity to help all children, even those who don’t use vouchers. The reauthorization of the OSP also gives an additional $20 million annually for D.C. public schools and the city’s public charter schools, and a recent Washington Post poll showed that 53 percent of D.C. public school parents rate the public school system positively, the highest percentage in 10 years. Those numbers run counter to the idea that public schools suffer as a result of vouchers and lend credence to the theory that voucher programs force public schools to improve through competition.
And while we shouldn’t be surprised by the strong demand for scholarships or the success of the sign-up events - after all, 74 percent of respondents to a poll conducted this year by the American Federation for Children said they favored bringing back the program - it’s still heartening every time a parent goes that extra mile to give his or her child a chance.
There will be another sign-up event for the voucher program from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday at St. Anthony’s Catholic School at 12th and Lawrence streets Northeast. As at the previous event, it is likely to be devoid of politics.
This is what can happen when a debate ends not in favor of special interests or the status quo, but in favor of children, parents and families. The path to get there was long, contentious and taxing on everyone involved, but we should all be able to agree that when parents give their all for their children, it represents the best of what politics can achieve.
I got into this business to use politics as a means to an end, to give struggling parents the opportunity to improve their children’s lives and to give them the educational options every child in this country deserves.
Though it may sound odd, it’s time that we used the business of politics to put politics aside. If there’s anything the OSP sign-up period has proved, it’s that even after knock-down, drag-out political fights, unity of purpose is possible.
Kevin P. Chavous, a former D.C. Council member, is the board chairman of the Black Alliance for Education Options and Democrats for Education Reform.