Wednesday, September 9, 2009

School-voucher proponents confronted police Tuesday morning outside the U.S. Department of Education, where the protesters demanded that federal officials restore scholarships taken away from 216 D.C. students.

About 20 Federal Protective Services officers stood in front of the Maryland Avenue Southwest entrance, blocking six demonstrators, who formed a human chain, from entering the building. As the protesters inched closer to the doorway, officers called for backup and obstructed their path.

A crowd of about 30 demonstrators chanted, “Spare the change, return our hope.” The group stood on the building’s steps, cheering on those who linked arms and stood face to face with authorities. Former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, who organized the event, and Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, were among those risking arrest.

The protesters, who had stated their intention to be arrested, backed away from the officers when it became clear they would not be arrested.

“You may not lock us up, but we’ll be back,” Mr. Chavous said. “We will make sure that we do everything in our power to give our children the education they deserve. I am disgusted by the fact that they can go to great lengths to stop or muzzle the voice of freedom.

“It is fundamentally wrong for this administration not to listen to the voices of citizens in this city.”

The protest against President Obama’s refusal to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program came the same day that Mr. Obama addressed the nation’s classrooms in a televised speech about the importance of taking personal responsibility for one’s education.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry also attended the protest to discuss his support for the voucher program. Mr. Barry explained that he had a previous engagement in New York later in the day and could not stay to be arrested.

“I don’t mind it,” joked Mr. Barry, who served six months in federal prison on drug charges in 1990. “I’ve been handcuffed many times - you know, for all causes.”

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 The administration offered and then rescinded scholarships to 216 D.C. students in the spring when the program was canceled.

Mr. Barry, who served on the D.C. Board of Education, drew from his own experience about the importance of parents and children having the power to choose schools.

“Too many parents are stuck … and have no choice,” Mr. Barry said. “I had a choice, because we had the money to send [my son] to a private school. Too many parents don’t have those options, and I believe very strongly we are to support this program.”

Mrs. Walden Ford, who is dubbed the “mother” of the D.C. voucher movement, choked back tears of frustration while pledging her support to keep the program going.

“I am so tired of this,” she said. “I am so tired of our government not understanding that these kids are winning. You know, why take away from them when they’re winning? I can’t understand it. I am tired, but I will fight until I die. I’ll do what I have to do, I promise you that.”

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