SIMMONS: In memory of hope for the poor

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Monday is Memorial Day, the American holiday when we pay homage to living and deceased heroes in jubilant and solemn fashion. And while I mean no harm to our commander in chief, I do think it the perfect time to again reflect on the audacity to hope on behalf of our rising generation of youths, who are inextricably tied to troubled school systems.

For some reason, our commander in chief fails to see the value in public education vouchers, and he apparently has an acute disdain for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which grants up to $12,000 in tax money to pay for a poor child’s tuition at a private or religious school.

In fact, President Obama wants to slam shut the schoolhouse doors to any new applicants, having proposed in his fiscal 2013 budget that no more children be allowed.

Now, this is not the first time the president has dampened the academic hopes of poverty-stricken families. After all, he grandfathered in children for the D.C. voucher program in 2009 but blocked other children from entering.

Blessedly, Congress intervened in 2010 with the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR), which reconstituted funding for more voucher applicants and laid out guidelines for researching several aspects of the voucher program. SOAR also appropriated money for D.C. traditional and charter schools, and Mr. Obama signed the legislation into law.

But the president is reneging by trying to put an artificial cap on the program of 1,615 students, and that causes two major problems.

For one, as I mentioned earlier, it means no additional students.

More important, it means that researchers will be handicapped, unable to track how effective or ineffective the successful program is, was or can be with new participants.

Public school teachers, by and large, do not like tracking methods because they reflect on an individual teacher’s effectiveness and interfere with determining whether a teacher, individually or collectively as a bargaining unit, gets a raise, promotion, bonus or tenure.

Indeed, a serious teacher tracking system is the only component missing from D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s ambitious and costly plan to pay higher salaries to those who teach in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and lowest-performing schools. For his part, though, Mr. Brown is a huge supporter of SOAR, which fully funds the three-pronged approach to public education.

What the commander in chief needs to do is look at what the future holds for underprivileged youths in the D.C. voucher program.

• Research released Tuesday by the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. shows that in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, voucher students had a graduation rate of 94 percent and that 89 percent of them enrolled in two- or four-year colleges.

• Parental satisfaction remains high, too — with 92 percent of parents elated with their children’s academic progress and 98 percent intending to renew their children’s participation for the next school year.

What’s more, nearly 1,700 families have applied for renewals and 1,200 new applications for the next school year are in play.

Those facts underscore the success of the program, which began in 2004, as well as its popularity as local and federal authorities continue to grapple with the question of what role, if any, school choice should play in education reform.

Kevin P. Chavous, one of the District’s strongest voices for choice, knows the inside story of what’s going on here.

“Parents want this program and have applied in big numbers despite very few formal application events,” Mr. Chavous, a former council member and current senior adviser at the American Federation for Children, said Tuesday.

To deny school vouchers to low-income families is the same as issuing a dream-deferment voucher to their children — for a second time.

It’s unfathomable why the president of the United States — the commander in chief as he is called when such holidays as Memorial Day roll around, would try to divine such a prospect upon families that otherwise could not afford such a possibility that clearly is pregnant with academic expectations.

Poor people have the audacity to hope, too.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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