(CNSNews.com) - In his fiscal 2011 budget, President Barack Obama makes further cuts in funding for the District of Columbia's Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income, mostly minority students.
Obama stopped funding altogether for the OSP in his 2010 fiscal year budget, but after protests from parents and school choice advocates, the administration decided to let children already receiving scholarships continue to do so until they graduate from high school.
In the new budget, however, funding for the OSP is slashed by $4 million -- from $13 million to $9 million – $1 million of which is for administrative costs.
The administration has said the money is enough to keep the president's pledge, but critics charge that the cut in funding is another sign that the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are dedicated to ending the program, which began in 2004 as a way to allow disadvantaged children to attend high-performing private schools they otherwise could not afford.
"I don't understand how (Obama) can sleep at night knowing he is killing a program that has helped so many kids," Virginia Walden Ford, a longtime school choice activist and founder of DC Parents for School Choice, told CNSNews.com. "It's painful. It's heartbreaking."
The not-for-profit Washington Scholarship Fund, which has announced it will no longer administer the program, told The Washington Post that an additional $7 million in funding was needed to keep OSP solvent and serving the estimated 1,300 children already enrolled.
In addition to the funding cuts and no organization currently in charge of administering the OSP, Obama's budget also states that this fiscal year is the last year funds for the OSP will be requested:
"The Budget also provides $20 million for D.C. charter schools to support facilities and other unmet needs, and $9 million for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a private school voucher program begun in 2004. The Budget proposes to continue to provide private school vouchers for only those students currently enrolled in the program.
“Based on current program participation rates and the amount of available program funding carried forward from prior fiscal years, it is expected that this will be the final request for Federal funding to support the Opportunity Scholarship program. Any funds not used in 2011 will be available in future years to provide scholarships to the current cohort of students."
The OSP was designed to provide a $7,500 scholarship to about 1,700 students so they could attend one of the 55 private or parochial schools in the District, including the one attended by Obama's daughters.
The Education Department’s 2008 Digest of Education Statistics shows that for the 2005-2006 school year $18,339 was spent per pupil per year for average daily attendance in the D.C. public schools – more than double what it costs for a child to attend a private school through the OSP.
Despite that spending, the public schools in the District are consistently ranked as some of the worst performing schools in the nation.
Some who support the scholarships, however, say they will not give up the fight to reauthorize the OSP, which would allow the program to be fully funded so that new students could apply for the open slots each school year.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) announced on Feb. 4 that they are sponsoring an amendment to be attached to legislation currently moving through the Senate that would reauthorize the OSP for five years.
"At a time when our country is seeking ways to improve education results, we are unfortunately forced to fight to keep alive a program that has proven results, the Opportunity Scholarship Program," Lieberman said in a statement about the amendment. "That is a tragedy and an outrage.
“Senator Collins and I firmly believe that the OSP program should continue -- alongside efforts to improve the public schools -- as one part of an overall strategy to guarantee equal educational opportunities for all students,” said Lieberman. “For that reason, we will be offering our bi-partisan reauthorization proposal as an amendment to legislation that is moving in the Senate.”
“The great civil rights struggle of our time is the struggle to reform our education system so that all of our children have a chance to achieve the American dream,” he said. “And the Opportunity Scholarship Program provides a vital opportunity for students in the District of Columbia to achieve the dream – and win their race to the top.
"We hope that the Senate will act favorably on our amendment, and thus ensure that many underserved children in the District can continue to benefit from the kinds of educational opportunities that are always available to more affluent families, including many members of the House and Senate and the White House,” said Lieberman.
In the House, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) joined Lieberman in a letter last week to the president asking him to reverse his stand and to order the reauthorization of the OSP.
As CNSNews.com reported earlier, Duncan defended the administration's decision to end OSP.
“I appreciate the desire of every family to have the best possible education for their child,” Duncan told CNSNews.com in a statement. “I also understand that our role is to support children, parents and educators. That is why this Administration is devoting more resources and supports more ambitious reform of our public school systems than any administration in history.”
Duncan said taking a small percentage of children out of the public school system and putting them in private schools is not the answer: “We need to be more ambitious. We need to fix all of our schools,” he said.
Walden Ford vowed to continue the battle for the OSP, even if she said it is clear the Obama administration is adamantly opposed to it.
"They are trying to get rid of this program, and that is really clear from this budget," she said. "We will continue to fight."