- 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parent of two who said she was “devastated and angry” that a federally funded scholarship for her daughter had been withdrawn.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.”

The bill would provide $20 million for the scholarships and provide equal funding for traditional and charter public schools. It also would raise the voucher amount to $9,000 for kindergartners through eighth-graders and $11,000 for ninth- through 12th-graders. It also would add a sibling preference so as not to separate families.

The sibling preference would solve one of Miss Bennett’s concerns.

“I applied for Nia to get a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship so that she could attend Naylor Road for the ‘09-10 school year. I was initially told that she was eligible for a scholarship; I was so elated,” Miss Bennett told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in May. “Then along came a retraction letter, and I was devastated and angry. I want Nia to have the same opportunity to excel as well as her older brother. Nia is so looking forward to going to Naylor Road with her brother that she continues to ask me, ‘Mom when do I go to school with my brother?’ ”

Miss Bennett pleaded with federal and local officials to expand the program.

“Please hear my plea about the severity of this matter to me and a lot of parents who are going through the same stress and anxiety of not knowing what is going to happen to our children’s hopes and dreams for a better future and education,” Miss Bennett said. “This program shows that low-income children can excel when given the opportunity. It gives parents such as myself hope for our future. My children’s future depends on this opportunity.”

Mr. Obama said last week that he is “going to be making a big speech to young people all across the country about the importance of education, the importance of staying in school, how we want to improve our education system and why it’s so important for the country.”

Miss Bennett’s testimony could make for a solid first draft.

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