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So I have an article in today’s Baltimore Sun defending the good work that Michelle Rhee did during her time as Chancellor of the D.C. public schools.  Recent allegations of cheating during her tenure have caused status-quo apologists like Diane Ravitch to call into question everything that she did.  Now, other than just the generally nasty and hostile tone taken against a woman who worked tirelessly to improve educational options for students in D.C. (who by the way supports vouchers, just btdubs), these critcisms are generally unfounded.  Ravitch and hamfistedness with data is now about as guaranteed as death and taxes, so  I’ll leave it to Paul Peterson (my mentors’ mentor at PEPG) to dismantle her argument.

I do want to direct your attention (as most of the article is about how to do testing right) to the fourth lesson that we state can be learned from the tenure of Michelle Rhee:

“Fourth, regulation without choice is tinkering at the margins. We have learned through years of data on schools failing to make adequate yearly progress that if students lack the power to leave their schools, centralized accountability mechanisms can only do so much to regulate school behaviors. Using data to help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children could combine the best of both systems to ensure the highest quality education for students.”

This is why the more I read and study, the more I support school choice.  Regulating the monopoly of traditional public schooling is simply an impossible task, and the standardized tests and testing procedures necessary to do so are not what we want to use to govern our education system.  By combining a system of regulation with market mechanisms (informed and empowered families picking where their children go to school) we can go light-years farther in ensuring a high quality education for every student in America.



Oh, and I failed to mention that in all of this budget strum und drang in D.C. it looks like the Opportunity Scholarship Program is surging back to life.  It is going to be a part of a fresh infusion of money into the “three-sector solution” for D.C. schools (traditional public, charter, and voucher schools) and given the success of the program in it’s previous incarnation, this news bodes well for the children of the District. 


As I have had a chance to listen to this week’s congressional testimony regarding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a consistent argument that comes against the program has been brought up by several members of the House, and it needs to be addressed.

Several members (and untold numbers of voucher opponents) argue that we should be focusing our time, effort, and money helping the public schools (who educate the vast majority of students) and the time, effort, and money that we spend on school choice programs is simply a distraction from the larger issues of education reform.  “We have a fiscal crisis”, they argue, “and this is taking money from public schools that need it!”.

My three responses:

1. The DC OSP was designed to avoid this exact problem. When the original OSP was designed, it was part of the “three sector” solution to the problems plaguing the D.C. school system.  This involved increased funding for public and charter schools and creation of the voucher program, which was funded from a completely separate budget line item.  Not a single penny left the D.C. public schools and went to a private school. In fact, the program made money for DCPS as they were given more money but had fewer students to educate!

2. Children are not Social Workers. I stole that line from a statement from Mayor Cory Bookerregarding the New Jersey Opportunity Scholarship Act wherein he argued that it was ludicrous to keep kids in failing schools while the adults figure out how to fix them.  WE (and as a taxpayer, educator, and adult I’m right there with ya’ll) are to blame for our nation’s failure to educate children, and WE need to figure out how to fix it, but while WE’re getting our act together WE need to do everything possible to help the kids currently in the system.

Former D.C. city council member Kevin Chavous used the following analogy during his House testimony:  “The house is on fire and we have to proceed on different tracks, there are firemen that have to go put that fire out, and there are firemen that have to go inside that building and pull some of those kids out, and you know what?  You may not pull everyone out of that building, but you’re gonna pull out as many as you can to stabilize the system and to save lives…I really believe that by any means necessary really means by any means necessary when it comes  to the children we are trying to save.”

If you are of the belief that we shouldn’t help some because we can’t help all, I ask you a simple question, would you send your kids to these schools? And if you wouldn’t, why in God’s name would you force someone else to?

(If you’re more about the philosophical arguments for school choice, and are persuaded by the idea that it is wrong that some people get to choose where their kids go to school and others aren’t, you can feel free to stop reading now.  However, if you are a part of that minority that wants a deeper level of argument (and haven’t lost interest yet) I encourage you to read on, because it’s about to get dorky)

3.  A Rising tide raises all boats. In a more difficult to digest journal article (and a more reader- friendly piece in Education Next), superstar economist Caroline Hoxby looked at the performance of public schools in Milwaukee, Michigan, and Arizona after the implementation of school choice programs.  The money quote:

“Taken together, the findings presented here, from Milwaukee, Arizona, and Michigan, offer a first glimpse at how public schools are responding to these new forms of school choice. They suggest that the fears of a downward spiral aren’t merely overblown. They’re simply wrong.”

As it turns out, either because public schools get worried that they’re going to lose funding when students leave their schools, or because when students and parents get to choose where they go to school they sort into environments that better fit their needs, public schools get better in response to choice programs.

In graphic form (from Education Next):

The different types of schools (“most affected” “somewhat affected” and “not affected”)  describe how much pressure these schools felt from school choice, that is, how many of their    students were eligible and able to leave if they so chose.  It turns out the more of the “threat”   that vouchers were, the better the school performed.  If you read further in the article, you can     see her comparisons for charter schools in Michigan and Arizona (they look pretty similar).

So it turns out, rather than being a “distraction”, school choice can be a mechanism to help all of  the kids that don’t take advantage of the program.

Why?  Well you don’t have to be Milton Friedman to believe that the monopoly that traditional  public schools have in most urban areas is a hindrance to innovation and progress.  By introducing competition in the form of charter schools and voucher programs, all schools have to get better or risk losing their students (and funding).  While possibly painful for the adults involved, in the end, this is in the best interest of our children.

We have to do something to help the kids that are in D.C. both today and tomorrow.   It is always important to remember with vouchers that no student is ever required to use them.  If they are happy in the schools that they are in, they can stay.  But if they aren’t, all vouchers do is extend to them the same privileges that middle-class and wealthy people all across the country have, and to be against that is just plain wrong.

This morning, the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, headed by Senator Joe Lieberman, heard testimony regarding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. (The video and text of the speakers’ testimony can be found here).

I’d like to give a shout out to Dr. Patrick Wolf (who starts at 94:32) from here at the School Choice Demonstration Project in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who testified about the IES-sponsored evaluation of the program.

Some of the facts from his testimony that anyone talking about the OSP needs to know:

1. The DC OSP “serves a highly disadvantaged group of students”.  How disadvantaged?  The average family income of scholarship recipients was less than $20,000.

2.  OSP students graduated from High School at signifigantly higher rates than the control group (those that applied but lost the scholarship lottery). Students that were offered a voucher graduated at a rate 12 percentage points higher than those that were not, and students that used that scholarship graduated at a rate 21 percentage points higher.  Those students that came from SINI schools (the lowest performing D.C. schools) graduated at a 13 percentage point higher rate if offered a scholarship and a 20 percentage point (from 66% to 86%) higher rate if they used that scholarship.

3. We can believe, with 94% confidence, that the OSP had a positive effect on student reading scores.  These reading gains roughly equate to 2.8 additional months of schooling for the entire treatment group (those offered scholarships) and 3.4 additional months of schooling for those that used their scholarship.

4.  All of these great things were accomplished with only $7500 per student in a city whose public schools spend, per-student,  $28,000+ dollars per year.


Let’s hope the truth will set the students of D.C. free.


Yes Yes Ya’ll.

To view the whole film, which is awesome, visit

A promising outcome of the landslide victory of the Republicans in the House and significant gains in the Senate, is the likelihood that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program will rise again.  Phased out by the Obama Administration and an antagonistic Democratic Congress, the D.C. OSP offered scholarships for some 1,700 low-income children in D.C., a place with notoriously bad urban public schools, to attend private schools of choice.  For many, this was a ticket out of a failing and potentially unsafe public school into a nurturing school that provided hope for a better life.  It was a tragedy when it was canceled, and helped cause the closing of up to four D.C. Catholic Schools.

With Speaker Boehner, a Catholic school advocate and a D.C. OSP supporter, at the helm, and Rep. Kline likely to take the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, it looks likely that the OSP will see a new day. I am hopeful, and think it is likely, that it will rise up bigger and better protected than before.

The Washington Times reported on Nov. 9

A spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and likely chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said her boss and other House leaders continue to support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and intend to pursue its revival.

“Congressman Kline is very focused on restoring the program,” spokeswoman Alexa Marrero said.

She added that presumptive House Speaker-to-be John A. Boehner and Rep. Darrell Issa, incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees D.C. affairs, also “remain strong supporters” of the D.C. voucher program.

The National Review published this article online on Nov. 4

An overlooked group of winners from Tuesday’s landslide election is low-income children living in Washington, D.C.  Speaker Boehner is likely to make reviving the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program a priority in the next Congress, setting the stage for an interesting confrontation with President Obama.

Since the 1990s, Boehner has championed policies to expand school choice options for kids trapped in low-performing schools. As the chairman of the Education Committee in 2004, he supported the Bush administration’s successful effort to create a pilot school voucher program in Washington, D.C. He also successfully pressed for school vouchers in the emergency federal aid package to help the many kids who were displaced by the Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005.

Beyond his work as a legislator, Boehner has been a tireless advocate for inner-city parochial schools. For years, Boehner has co-sponsored annual charity events with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (and other Democratic leaders), raising millions to help struggling parochial schools in Washington, D.C. The events also have provided a preview into the Republican’s softer side (which the country saw first-hand Tuesday night). He’s known for his tendency to choke up when talking about the need to give poor children a chance to attend better schools, and presides over these charity events with a box of tissues close at hand.

I offered a lot of posts on this issue during the drama over the OSP re-authorization, but here is a favorite, the letter from leaders from the University of Notre Dame to Secretary of Education Duncan and Senator Durbin.

In a powerful op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, iconic President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame and a leader in the civil rights movement, reflects upon education as the civil rights issue of our time.  Emphasizing the role of education in providing young people with equality of opportunity, he condemns the actions of congress in removing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Here are some selections:

If Martin Luther King Jr. told me once, he told me a hundred times that the key to solving our country’s race problem is plain as day: Find decent schools for our kids… Millions of our children—disproportionately poor and minority—remain trapped in failing public schools that condemn them to lives on the fringe of the American Dream.

For all these reasons, I was deeply disappointed when Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) successfully inserted a provision in last year’s omnibus spending bill that ended one of the best efforts to give these struggling children the chance to attend a safe and decent school.

Despite its successes, it is now closing down. On Tuesday the Senate voted against a measure introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) that would have extended the program. Throughout this process Mr. Duncan’s Education Department and the White House raised no protest.

Much has been written about the crisis in education, and the effective resegregation of our public schools. It’s clear who is paying the price.

Many of the parents using Opportunity Scholarships chose Catholic schools for their children even though they are not Catholic themselves. That’s no coincidence. When others abandoned the cities, the Catholic schools remained, and they continue to do heroic work.

At Notre Dame we launched our own efforts to bolster this mission. Our Alliance for Catholic Education, for example, takes talented young men and women, trains them to see teaching as a career, and then sends them into struggling inner-city schools such as Holy Redeemer in Washington, D.C.

But these inner-city schools can’t do it themselves. Recently the archdiocese of Washington announced that Holy Redeemer would be forced to close its doors at the end of the year because the families who send their children to the school are unable to afford it without the financial aid they receive from this program. The archdiocese stated that “decisions last year by the U.S. Department of Education and by Congress to phase out the federal D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program . . . negatively impacted Holy Redeemer’s financial situation.”

Of Holy Redeemer’s 149 students, 60 were on Opportunity Scholarships. Unlike so many of their peers, these kids were on their way to college. Now they have to find some other safe haven. Others will never get the chance at all.

I know that some consider voucher programs such as the Opportunity Scholarships a right-wing affair. I do not accept that label. This program was passed with the bipartisan support of a Republican president and Democratic mayor. The children it serves are neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal or conservative. They are the future of our nation, and they deserve better from our nation’s leaders.

I have devoted my life to equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of skin color. I don’t pretend that this one program is the answer to all the injustices in our education system. But it is hard to see why a program that has proved successful shouldn’t have the support of our lawmakers. The end of Opportunity Scholarships represents more than the demise of a relatively small federal program. It will help write the end of more than a half-century of quality education at Catholic schools serving some of the most at-risk African-American children in the District.

I cannot believe that a Democratic administration will let this injustice stand.

Father Hesburgh is the former president of the University of Notre Dame.

Despite the hopes of opponents that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program would quietly be phased out, supporters for this small and successful voucher program are tenacious.  See here for an op-ed in today’s Washington Post.

The fight has now been going on for months and a recent proposed amendment by Senate. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) to the Federal Aviation Administration would have reauthorized the program for another five years, allow new children to enter the program, modestly increase scholarship amounts, and continue a rigorous federal evaluation.

The Senate heard debate on Sen. Lieberman’s amendment this afternoon, including compelling speeches from Sens. Lieberman (I-CT), Collins (R-ME), Feinstein (D-CA), Voinovich (R-OH), and Ensign (R-NV)in support of the OSP.

Unfortunately the Senate voted down the Lieberman Amendment: 42 – 55.

This is a tragedy for the students of D.C. and for many urban private schools serving low-income minority children, as I’ve discussed earlier.  This proves to opponents, yet again, that this program won’t go away quietly and that parents and education reform advocates will keep fighting.

My guess is that this issue will come up again and again until the program is reauthorized, likely bigger and better than the first time.  This may happen as soon as the mid-term elections, where it is likely that democrats will lose ground.

So, although this is a loss in the short term, I think it will prove that these programs don’t die easily and are likely to be resurrected quickly when the landscape changes.  And in the mean time, while the fight in D.C.continues, many other states are making progress.