- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009


The First Family’s dog-shopping experience is a testament to the benefits of choice. Soon, the president, his wife, and his daughters reportedly will welcome a Portuguese Water Dog into the White House.

But if the president (and congressional Democrats) practiced what they preached, his family wouldn’t have that choice. In fact, someone else would get to do the choosing.

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Last week, Democrats in Congress inserted a provision into the 2009 omnibus spending bill that would threaten the future of the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a voucher program that lets low-income families send their children to the private schools of their choice. More than 1,700 students participate, each receiving up to $7,500 for tuition, fees and transportation costs - considerably less than the $14,400 it costs on average to educate a student in D.C. public schools.

Democrats stipulated that future appropriations for OSP will require Congress’ reauthorization and the D.C. Council’s approval. Although the language doesn’t kill the program, it certainly doesn’t help it. Nor does it help OSP’s longevity when President Obama and the District’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, are vocal critics of such programs.

In July 2008, Mr. Obama told the American Federation of Teachers he is against “using public money for private school vouchers,” insisting “[w]e need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools, not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”

The fact is, Mr. Obama himself walked away from them. His two daughters attended private school in Chicago and currently do so in D.C. That aside, the objection of sending “public money” to private institutions is convoluted. After all, it’s the private sector providing those funds to the public sector in the first place. That money is an extension of the people, and if the people want choice they should get it. And they do - at least for now.

There are currently 18 private school choice programs in existence, affecting 171,000 students in 10 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Alliance for School Choice. That number is growing annually, most recently with Louisiana passing legislation that allows low-income students in underperforming New Orleans public schools to attend private ones. Polling data also are telling.

According to a 2008 Education Next/Harvard PEPG survey, 65 percent of African-Americans support private school vouchers for low-income students (14 percent opposed). Among Hispanics, 63 percent support vouchers for low-income children (16 percent opposed). If that’s not enough evidence, just ask the students.

“It hasn’t made a big difference. It made a huge difference,” Carlos Battle, a student participating in D.C.’s voucher program, told the Voices of School Choice Web site. “If I didn’t have the scholarship I’d probably still be in the … local high school, which is terrible. If you don’t reauthorize [the program] that’s basically taking a lot of the kids’ dreams away of becoming what they are [sic], like politicians, governors, president, anyone.”

And if that’s not enough, ask the president if choice works - not only with his daughters’ schooling, but his family’s pet choices as well. According to some newspapers, the first lady and her daughters are leaning toward the Portuguese Water Dog for its medium size, temperament and hypoallergenic qualities (Malia has allergies - I can relate). After all, children are unique and have unique needs. But what if someone, who has no stake in the choice’s ramifications, were able to make this decision - similar to what congressional Democrats apparently want to do with D.C.’s voucher program?

How about a St. Bernard? They’re good rescue dogs if the girls are ever stuck in the snow; however, they do have a drooling problem. Or what about a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever? Do the girls like hunting? Or maybe a Chinese Crested-Chihuahua - a member of that breed won the 2007 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest.

Government can always provide assistance should they be unhappy with their pup. Maybe a Building Alliances and Relationships for Canines (BARC) program or Funding for Improving Dog Opportunities (FIDO). Or at least more money for a fancy collar and other accessories.

The point is one-size-fits-all government programs and more spending do not equal the satisfaction and value of personal choice, which can be utilized in pet adoption and education, or anything for that matter.

In fairness, President Obama is a proponent of public school choice. But he could make a stand for the value of private schools and ensure that parents and children in Washington, D.C., are afforded the same choice his family enjoys. As far as the family’s new pet, the Water Dog probably best fits their needs. Personally, I would prefer a Beagle, but that’s my choice.

J. William Reed is the Education Task Force director for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

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