Washington (CNSNews.com) – A bipartisan group of senators announced Thursday that they plan to introduce legislation to revive the District of Columbia’s recently terminated D.C. Opportunity Scholarship school-voucher program.
“It’s not a liberal or conservative program, it’s a program that puts children first,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) Thursday at a Capitol Hill press conference announcing the effort.
“I’m happy to say it’s a program that’s working to give D.C. children, every one of them, a chance at a better education.”
Lieberman was joined by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine); George Voinovich (R-Ohio); former Washington mayor Anthony Williams and former D.C. city councilman Kevin Chavous.
According to Lieberman, the bill would not only keep the program going, it also would allow it to continue taking in more students, including 216 who had been awarded scholarships for the upcoming school year -- only to see them vanish when the program was terminated.
“The work of reform is not done yet here in the Washington, D.C., school system,” Lieberman said, “and the Opportunity Scholarship Program provides an alternative.” He also referred to the program as a “lifeline for kids" for whom the D.C. school system is not working.
Collins, meanwhile, noted that a little girl sitting in the front row was wearing a sticker reading, “What about me?”
“I think that’s the question that you should ask anyone who is opposing our efforts to extend this important program -- you should ask, ‘What about me? Don’t I deserve a good education?’
“The fact is, that if the D.C. scholarship program were terminated today, 86 percent of the students in the program would be returning to failing schools," Collins said. “That’s not right.”
Collins praised the efforts of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to reform the city's persistently failing public schools. “But as she is the first to tell you it’s not going to happen overnight, and in the meantime, you’re asking the right question: ‘What about me?’ ”
“This is about our future as a city,” said former Mayor Anthony Williams, a Democrat who served at city hall from 1999-2007.
“It’s really about these parents and it’s about these kids,” he asserted, “that they have an opportunity and that they have a future, and that’s why I believe that this is going to succeed. It’s going to prevail, and we’re going to continue to fight to make that so.”
Chavous, a leading school-choice advocate when he served on the D.C. City Council from 1993-2005, issued a challenge to Congress and the D.C. City Council to support the program.
“It is time to put up or shut up,” he said. “Either we’re going to work for kids, and we’re going to make sure that the deeds match the rhetoric, or we’re not.”
Legislation to reinstate the program is backed by senators from across the political spectrum – Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. In addition to moderates Lieberman, Collins and Voinovich; the bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.); John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
During the 2008-2009 school year, over 1,700 children were aided by the Opportunity Scholarship Program, enabling them to enroll in 49 different non-public schools.
In order to qualify, a child must come from a family with an annual income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $39,220 for a family of four. However, the average annual income for families actually receiving assistance is only $22,736.
“To the parents in Plus-D.C. who care so much about this program, the fight goes on,” Lieberman said. “We’re not giving up because we know how much this means to you and your children.”
New Education Secretary Arne Duncan is responsible for killing the Opportunity Scholarship Program outright; however Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the district’s non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress, led the congressional effort to phase-out the program.
In an April interview with Science magazine, Duncan stated that for his own children’s sake, he chose to live in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington, because of its superior public schools.
CNSNews.com asked Lieberman whether it was hypocritical of the Secretary of Education to deny school vouchers to D.C. children (which would have allowed them to attend the school of their choice), while admittedly, deciding to live (across the Potomac from Washington) so that his children could attend better schools.
“I’m going to leave those judgments to you, but I can tell you that I’ve talked to Secretary Duncan about this program,” Lieberman replied. “He had to give notice to the parents that their kids, the 216, could not to be enrolled. My impression, and you should talk to him about this – he didn’t feel good about that. He understood the hopes of those 216.”
The office of the secretary of education did not return calls seeking comment.