- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

A collection of local and national school-reform advocates came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday in support of the 216 D.C. students whose scholarships were taken away when the Obama administration ended the city’s school-voucher program.

Voucher proponents expressed their frustration about a lack of communication from President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the fate of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has helped 3,300 students attend schools of their choice.

“We’ve had no response from Secretary [Duncan] at all,” said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of the D.C. Parents for School Choice. “The president said in May he would make sure the kids would be protected, but that, of course, has not been the case. The message to me implies that they don’t have any intentions of dealing with this program. It’s really confusing.”

Hundreds of students, parents and teachers attended the protest, which drew House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican; former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings; D.C. Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat; and Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Democrat.

The voucher program began in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration. Children whose families had an annual income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines qualified for vouchers. More than 1,700 children participated in the program.

The Obama administration in the spring offered and then rescinded scholarships to 216 D.C. students who had attended private schools on the vouchers but were forced to change schools when the program was canceled.

“We’ve got a lot of politicians running around saying, ‘We’re going to put kids first,’ ” said Mrs. Spellings, who served as education secretary under Mr. Bush. “But then when it comes time to walk the walk, they don’t do it. We have to keep them honest. If you say ‘put kids first,’ you need to support the D.C. scholarship fund.”

However, Dominic Smith, a history and math teacher at Bridges Academy in Northwest Washington said the voucher program needed to be revamped to ensure that students who want to be there have their school of choice.

Mr. Smith suggested that students using vouchers be held to stronger requirements, such as higher grade-point averages to stay in the program.

“A lot of students do take advantage of the voucher [program] properly; meaning, they actually take advantage of their education,” Mr. Smith said. “There are voucher recipients who did not take advantage of the opportunity and wasted the voucher. … Whoever is running education in D.C. is messing up - the vouchers, a poor infrastructure, cutting the teachers and shabby schools, everything needs to be revamped.”

At one point during the rally, community activist Robert Vinson Brannum, who often shows up to the rallies and does not support the voucher program, shouted, “No to vouchers!” - causing the crowd to erupt into pro-voucher chants. He was quickly surrounded by voucher supporters who affixed “Put Kids First” stickers on the back of his shirt.

Ingrid Campbell, a working single mom, depends on the voucher program to put through school her two daughters, Mercedes, a 17-year-old senior at Georgetown Visitation, and 9-year-old Madisyn, a fourth-grader at Holy Trinity in Georgetown. Mercedes, who is graduating, is safe, but her younger sister could head to public school soon if the funding is cut permanently.

“I want [Mr. Obama] to open his eyes. Just look. The message is very big and right there in bright letters,” Ms. Campbell said. “I voted for him, and I’m still with him and everything, but why, why was this particular program taken away from so many kids? I’m going to have to put [Madisyn] in public schools or take a part-time job to afford it. This is not right.”

Mr. Boehner said every child should have the right to an education.

“Why shouldn’t every kid in America have a decent education?” Mr. Boehner said. “I’m a big believer in giving parents options for all of our kids. That’s exactly what we have to do, organize and put pressure on Congress to ensure that this scholarship program is able to continue.”

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