- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

It is difficult to comprehend why our city's leaders are assailing a proposal to give $45 million to low-income families to pursue the best K-12 educational opportunities for their children and going so far as to call it a "punishment" for the District (as described in a July 11 article in The Washington Times).

The only "punishment" imposed on our K-12 children is getting trapped in failing schools.

In the article in The Washington Times, District leaders implied that this is not something the city's residents want. I would like to remind our elected officials that in 1998-99, when the Washington Scholarship Fund offered D.C. residents privately funded scholarships for K-12 private schools, almost 10,000 families responded and applied. Today, through the generosity of our community, about 1,300 students are using these scholarships to attend 131 schools in the area but 2,700 families remain active on its waiting list. Other similar scholarship programs in our community are assisting hundreds of additional families. In addition, polls indicate very broad local support for vouchers. Is that not a "significant" enough movement?

District leaders also claim that this is a congressional mandate, and that if they are to support it, it should be a grassroots movement from the people. What about the thousands of families that have "spoken" by applying for privately funded K-12 scholarships? And what about the hundreds of families who apply for charter- school enrollment but can't get in because there is not enough room, even though the school district has an excess inventory of vacant building scattered throughout the city?

District leaders are raising concerns about congressional involvement in city affairs. No such concerns existed in 1999 when the D.C. College Access Act provided $17 million in federal funding to create the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program. This program provides D.C. residents up to $10,000 per year for public universities and up to $2,500 per year to attend private colleges in the D.C. metropolitan area and historically black colleges and universities nationwide. It's a program that each of our city leaders praise as a tremendous success. In a May 24, 1999, news release from D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton urging passage of the Act (H.R. 974), she praised the bill because it addressed "a critical educational deficit that not only affects students and other residents, but the revitalization of the city itself." So why should we treat a proposal to assist our K-12 children any differently?

With only 50 to 60 percent of our children graduating from D.C. Public Schools with a high- school diploma, shouldn't we embrace an attempt to provide additional assistance to our K-12 children to help ensure that they can take advantage of the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program?

As for any questions of concerns about the funding being used for private schools, I again point to the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program for colleges and universities. Students receiving the grant can choose among Catholic University, Marymount University, Trinity College and Washington Bible College. Again, why should the standard be different for K-12?

The idea of allowing low-income students to go to private schools, if their parents so choose, is a strong one that works. A three-year Harvard University research study conducted on the Washington Scholarship Fund and similar scholarship programs in New York and Dayton showed that, in private schools, reading and math test scores improved over public schools, parent and student satisfaction were higher than in public schools, safety and discipline issues were almost nonexistent and the physical facilities of the schools were ranked comparable.

The business community has heard the cry of our residents and responded with generous private funding for private K-12 scholarships, private college scholarships and assistance with creating charter-school facilities. Even so, the demand still exceeds the ability to fund philanthropically every student looking for these opportunities.

Congressional leaders have heard the cry for help, and responded in 1999 with $17 million per year to help D.C. high- school graduates go to the college of their choice. They are now offering $7 to 10 million per year to help the District's K-12 students go to the school of their choice.

When are our District officials going to respond in the same way?

C. Boyden Gray sits on the Board of Directors for the Washington Scholarship Fund, which provides privately funded scholarships to low-income children, and FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools), which supports charter school development.

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