- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

Put kids first. No to vouchers.

The debate over federally funded school vouchers in the District took to the streets Thursday, as advocates for school choice protested a decision to discontinue the program.

At the Maryland Avenue headquarters of the U.S. Department of Education, about 100 D.C. Opportunity Scholarship advocates urged Education Secretary Arne Duncan, President Obama and Congress to extend a lifeline for the program spawned in the city in 2004. They contend the program provides hope and a better quality of education for poor children who can’t afford to attend better schools.

The immediate goal of the demonstration was to restore vouchers to 216 students who were awarded them in the spring, only to see the offer rescinded by federal education officials.

Without a school voucher program, Patricia Williams fears her 12-year-old son Fransoir will let his grades slip again.

“This program means everything,” Mrs. Williams said. “He was in public school and it didn’t work for him. He experienced a lot of difficulty. Not to speak badly about public school, but he suffered. Public schools are not meant for every child. People have different needs.”

Clad in matching yellow T-shirts, the pro-voucher group assembled in support of school choice while counterprotester Robert Vinson Brannum, a community activist, strapped two loudspeakers to his car and shouted into a microphone at the demonstrators. The shouting match continued for nearly 45 minutes, with the volume of Mr. Brannum’s speakers drowning out the chants from the other side.

“The program itself is not designed to help D.C. public schools, which is what the argument is for them. It’s to support school choice,” argued Mr. Brannum, a former teacher whose son has attended private schools.

“The voucher program does not do that,” he said. “It’s simply a way to get public dollars for a limited number of students. That’s discriminatory. It seems to me if the private schools are receiving public funding, then they need to open their doors and let everyone in.”

For Sheila Jackson, the program is more about being able to decide what’s best for her 13-year-old daughter Shawnee, who attends Preparatory School of D.C.

“Public schools was not what she needed,” Ms. Jackson said. “She had the choice to go to the school that would challenge her, and that was my choice.”

Mr. Brannum disagreed.

“Not every choice can come on a public dollar,” he said. “I should have to pay for my child to go to private school. If it’s acceptable for those who oppose abortion not to have their dollars used to pay for abortions, I should have that same choice.”

A poll released in July from Braun Research on behalf of several pro-voucher groups found that close to 75 percent of D.C. residents favored the voucher program. The vouchers were embraced by 74 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of independents.

Sixty-eight percent of residents surveyed said they were opposed to lawmakers putting an end to the voucher measure, which offers up to $7,500 per student to attend private schools of their parents’ choice. More than 3,000 students have received the scholarships thus far.

Voucher proponents, including those in the District, continue to push for options that they argue are readily available for the wealthy, including members of Congress and Mr. Obama, whose own children attend the private Sidwell Friends School.

“President Obama is being a good dad and making good choices for his children and we don’t begrudge that one bit,” said Andrew Campanella, spokesman for the Alliance for School Choice in Washington. “We just want other families, low-income families, to be able to exercise some choice of their own.”

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