President Obama, Are You Listening?


The president wants to zero out a program that is saving poor kids from bad schools—the kind of reform that could work in Baltimore too.

Stephen Moore
May 1, 2015 7:19 p.m. ET
Washington, D.C.
Wall Street Journal

The scenes of Baltimore set ablaze this week have many Americans thinking: What can be done to rescue families trapped in an inner-city culture of violence, despair and joblessness?

There are no easy answers, but down the road from Baltimore in Washington, D.C., an education program is giving children in poor neighborhoods a big lift up. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which George W. Bush signed into law in 2004, has so far funded private-school tuition for nearly 5,000 students, 95% of whom are African-American. They attend religious schools, music and arts schools, even elite college-prep schools. Last month at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, I met with about 20 parents and children who participate in the program. I also visited several of these families in their homes—which are located in some of the most beaten-down neighborhoods in the city, places that in many ways resemble the trouble spots in Baltimore.

These families have now pulled together to brace for a David vs. Goliath fight to save the program. For the seventh straight year, President Obama has proposed eliminating this relatively tiny scholarship fund, which at $20 million accounts for a microscopic 0.0005% of the $4 trillion federal budget.

The parents and students point out that the scholarship program has extraordinary benefits—they use phrases like “a godsend for our children,” “a life saver” and “our salvation.” One father, Joseph Kelley, a tireless champion of the program, says simply, “I truly shudder to think where my son would be today without it.” (He and his son, Rashawn Williams, are pictured at home nearby on this page.)

Virginia Ford, whose son escaped the public schools through a private-scholarship to Archbishop Carroll, now runs a group called D.C. Parents for School Choice. She tells me that “kids in the scholarship program have consistently improved their test scores, have higher graduation rates, and are more likely to attend college than those stuck in the D.C. public schools.”

The numbers back her up. An Education Department-funded study at the University of Arkansas recently found that graduation rates rose 21 percentage points—to 91%, from 70%—for students awarded the scholarship vouchers through a lottery, compared with a control group of those who applied for but didn’t get the scholarships. For all D.C. public schools, the high-school graduation rate is closer to an abysmal 56%.

“If you’ve got a program that’s clearly working and helping these kids, why end it?” asks Pamela Battle, whose son Carlos received a voucher and was able to attend the elite Georgetown Day School. He’s now at Northeastern University in Boston. She says Carlos “almost surely wouldn’t have gone to college” without the voucher. “We send all this money overseas for foreign aid,” she adds, “why not save the kids here at home first?”

Amazingly, these energized parents are opposed by almost every liberal group, even the NAACP, and nearly every Democrat in Congress—including Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress but opposes a program that benefits her own constituents.

There is little question what stirs this opposition. The teachers union sees the program as taking away union jobs, and it is so powerful that the Democratic establishment falls in line. “It is so sad that our public schools aren’t doing what’s best for the kids,” laments Ms. Ford, but instead are looking out for “the adults.”

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program turns conventional politics upside down. President George W. Bush created the program and invited several of the parents, including Ms. Battle, to the White House. “I got to meet President Bush and his wife, who was so lovely,” she recalls about the meeting.

Mr. Obama won’t even meet with these parents. A few years ago the voucher supporters held a rally with 3,000 minority and disadvantaged families in front of the Capitol to protest President Obama’s proposed elimination of the program for all new students. Republicans in Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, one of the program’s strongest supporters, stood in solidarity with the families, while Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues were nowhere to be seen.

Democrats should listen to these families’ compelling stories of how this educational program is turning their lives around. Mr. Kelley is an outgoing, burly and bearded man of 67 who has reared 11 children—all but one of whom he adopted. Four of his children have won Opportunity Scholarships.

When I ask Mr. Kelly why he chose the private-school option, he replies: “You don’t understand,‎the public schools in my neighborhood aren’t just poor in quality. They are unsafe. The public schools have gotten so much worse through the years.”

He describes a grim scene on his first visit with Rashawn to a middle school in his neighborhood several years ago. “When I walked in the door, outside were two police cars and that was everyday routine for that school. There was violence. Fighting. Disrespect and drugs. No discipline whatsoever, just chaos.” It was, he says, “an awful learning environment.” Then he recalls: “When I complained to the principal about the chaos, she shook her finger at me and lectured, ‘Mr. Kelley, don’t tell me how to run my school.’ ”

Mr. Kelley says he was thinking, “No way can Rashawn go to this school. I’ll eventually wind up in jail because I’ll have to go down there and hurt one of those bully kids that hurts my son.” With parents in poor neighborhoods having no other options, school administrators can afford a take-it-or-leave it attitude. Except there was another option: applying for an Opportunity Scholarship. Rashawn wound up at Academia De La Recta Porta International Christian Day School.

Maritza White, whose son Michael also was awarded a scholarship, has a similar tale: “I decided to pull my son out [of public school] one day when he came home from school beaten up with a bloody nose and no one in the school showed any concern.” While most affluent and middle-class parents worry if their children will make the travel soccer team, or whether the local school is good enough to get their child into a top university, these poor parents worry every day whether their children will come home safely. A 2009 school-safety report from the Heritage Foundation noted that in that year the Education Department “found that 11.3% of the District’s high-school children reported being ‘threatened or injured’ with a weapon while on school property during the pervious year.”

Ms. White’s son Michael, who is 17, has attended the Cornerstone School, a Christian academy, since the third grade. The teachers soon discovered that he is a math prodigy and put him in special programs so he could excel.

Ms. White believes that beyond the improved academic standards, a big plus with Cornerstone was a curriculum the public schools won’t touch: “character development.” These religious schools try to instill basic values like integrity, honesty, hard work and smart behavior like not getting pregnant before marriage. The students are required to wear uniforms, a rule that she believes is “tremendously important to develop self respect.”

Oh, and by the way: Michael scored so high on his college-board tests that he was just contacted by Harvard and MIT, encouraging him to apply.

The most common objection to vouchers is that they drain public schools of resources. But Ms. Ford notes that when the Opportunity Scholarship program was created, the feds gave $20 million for the vouchers and an extra $20 million for the public schools. This meant more money for the public schools—and unionized teachers still opposed the program. “They aren’t afraid that the voucher program won’t work,” she says, “but that it will.”

The left’s rote response to rotten schools is to call for more money, but the D.C. scholarship program shows that a quality education can be had for less money. The Census Bureau reported in 2012 that Washington spent $18,667 per pupil in 2010. The scholarship amounts are $8,500 for elementary-school children and $12,000 for high school. So the voucher program gives kids a better education at about half the cost to the taxpayer.

Several parents point out that President Obama and his wife Michelle shopped around and chose the prep school Sidwell Friends for their daughters. Several of the Opportunity Scholarship children also go there. Now the president wants to end the program for children who sit next to his own daughters in the classroom. “He lives in public housing too,” says Mr. Kelley, half joking. “Why should he get school choice just because he’s rich and we’re not? If it’s good for your children, it’s good for our children.”

Public education has traditionally been the great equalizer in America. The tragedy today is that the decline of public schools is one of the leading contributors to generational cycles of poverty. Democrats say they want to make the 2016 election about income inequality, but they stand united in opposition to one of the most effective ways of reducing the gap between rich and poor: better education.

The good news is that school-choice programs like the one in Washington have spread to more than 20 states and about 300,000 children. While the programs are expanding, they are still too few to have much overall impact on American education.

Republicans should seize this issue. And when unions mobilize to kill school choice, the GOP should fight side by side with these inspiring students and parents to expand it across the country. The Education Department’s spending for K-12 education will soon reach $50 billion. For what? How about a GOP plan that would take that money from the bureaucracy and distribute five million vouchers of $10,000 each to the lowest-income Americans—like those who live in Baltimore?

For now at least, the Opportunity Scholarship in Washington should be saved and expanded. “I wish President Obama would sit down with us and hear our stories,” says Virginia Ford. “I think it would change his mind.”

Mr. Moore is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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