Pinching the Wrong Pennies

March 10, 2009 - 4:37 AM
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Across the country, folks have been cutting back. Not here in Washington, though.
 
Last month, Congress agreed to spend nearly a trillion dollars (a number so large it would take several human lifetimes just to count to it) on “stimulus” and another $1.4 trillion on a pork-laden budget. So one might assume, with all that money sloshing around, there would be enough to fund everything.
 
Indeed, lawmakers are tossing around $300 billion in new discretionary spending. That includes $60 billion for corporate welfare and $12.8 billion for some 9,287 earmarks.
 
But lawmakers did find one place to trim. They seem intent on canceling the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship program. That would “save” taxpayers $14 million (yes, that’s million with an “m.” Remember when that seemed like a lot of money?) -- a rounding error within the trillions taxpayers are being asked to pony up.
 
The so-called “stimulus” bill alone included $100 billion in new funding for the Department of Education. That’s more than the department spends each year. Yet lawmakers specifically slipped in language to make sure none of that money -- not a dime -- could be used to fund the Opportunity Scholarships.
 
This might be defensible if the vouchers these D.C. scholarships provide were an unpopular waste of money. But they’re not.
 
Parents love vouchers, which allow them to pull their children out of troubled local schools and send them to private or charter schools. Academic researchers have studied D.C.’s program and find parents with vouchers are more satisfied with their children’s schools. Early evidence indicates that children with vouchers are learning more than those who remain in public schools, and further studies are underway.
 
And the students love vouchers too. On a recent YouTube video, several recipients of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship asked President Barack Obama to preserve the program.
 
“I humbly ask that you continue funding programs that allow children a choice in education,” asks 17-year-old Jordan. Adds 12-year-old Fransoir, “Mr. President, I’m asking you on behalf of many kids, including myself, to support us and to save my scholarship please.” The vouchers have allowed him to dream big. “I told my mom not too long ago I would like to be president one day when I grow up,” he says.
 
This should be personal for the president, and not just because at least one of the voucher students aims to follow in his footsteps.
 
As columnist William McGurn explained recently in The Wall Street Journal, two voucher students go to school with the president’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, at the exclusive private school Sidwell Friends. Without the $7,500 in vouchers, the scholarship kids could never afford the school’s tuition.
 
Ironically, canceling the program could end up costing far more in the long run, since it would kick 1,715 low-income students out of their current schools and force them back into D.C.’s failing public system.
 
That’s especially a problem in light of President Obama’s recent declaration that dropping out of high school amounts to “quitting on your country.” Well, D.C. public schools have a 59 percent graduation rate. Giving students vouchers helps them get into schools with far higher graduation rates, enabling them to get diplomas and opening the door for them to go to college.
 
The president isn’t alone in sending his children to private schools, of course.
 
Two years ago The Heritage Foundation updated our groundbreaking survey of members of Congress and determined that 37 percent of representatives and 45 percent of senators in the 110th Congress sent their children to private schools. That’s almost four times the rate of the general population. Lawmakers can afford private schools, and want the best education possible for their children. That’s admirable.
 
Yet now these same lawmakers seem eager to deny poor parents school choice, even as they pass a series of bills that will bust the budget elsewhere. If you can figure all this out, please go to the head of the class.