Nevada’s Voucher Breakout

September 2, 2015 by

Unions and the ACLU fight universal statewide school choice.


The hullabaloo over Common Core is obscuring some major school choice flashpoints in the states. Consider Nevada, where the union for the public school status quo is suing to block revolutionary education savings accounts.

Earlier this summer Nevada Republicans established universal education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow all parents who withdraw their kids from public schools to spend state funds on private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring fees and special services. Jeb Bush last month praised Nevada’s ESAs as a model for “total voucherization,” which is scaring the unions silly.

Starting next year, parents who opt out of public schools can receive between 90% and 100% of the statewide average per-pupil allotment ($5,100 to $5,700) depending on their income. Unused funds can be rolled over for future expenses including college. According to the Friedman Foundation, ESAs will cover between 60% and 80% of the median tuition at private schools, many of which provide additional financial assistance.

Twenty-three states have enacted 48 private-school choice programs, but nearly all include income and eligibility caps. Four states other than Nevada—Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi—offer ESAs that are limited to special needs or low-income students.

American Enterprise Institute Resident Scholar Rick Hess on the political debate over national education standards. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Unions are desperate to prevent Nevada’s model from spreading. They argue that giving all parents these educational options will destroy public schools, but the real point is to break up the union monopoly. Universal ESAs give all low and middle-income students the ability to escape failing schools, while providing enough funding to seed alternatives.

The American Civil Liberties Union last week took up the union water cannon. It argued in a lawsuit that ESAs violate the Nevada constitution’s ban on “public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal” being used for a “sectarian purpose” and undermine “the public school system that the State is constitutionally required to support.”

This is a legal Hail Mary. Dozens of state constitutions include these so-called Blaine amendments, which are a legacy of the anti-Catholic bigotry of the 19th century. Most state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark 2011 ruling, Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, have interpreted these prohibitions narrowly. The High Court ruled that tax credits to nonprofits that fund private school scholarships aren’t government expenditures.

Last year the Arizona Supreme Court upheld an appellate decision that ESAs are constitutional because they are “neutral in all respects toward religion” and direct “aid to a broad class of individuals without reference to religion.” What’s more, “the specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools.”

The Institute for Justice, which helped defend Arizona’s ESAs and craft Nevada’s, notes that it is “the independent decision-making by parents that severs any link between church and state.” ESAs give “parents a genuine choice as to how to spend the money.” If ESAs are unconstitutional, then so are state Medicaid reimbursements to religiously affiliated hospitals.

It’s both a shame and reflection of modern liberal politics that the ACLU is teaming up with the teachers union to squash educational freedom.
Sept. 2, 2015

Inefficiency dogs Texas schools as classes resume

August 26, 2015 by

By   /   August 25, 2015  /   8 Comments

AP file photo

DOES NOT COMPUTE: The claim that Texas school funding is inadequate is undercut by financial data that show how the money is actually spent.


By Kenric Ward | Texas

In a Texas Supreme Court showdown, school-reform groups are escalating the fight over education financing. Countering teacher-union claims that state funding formulas are inadequate, reformers say the system is demonstrably inefficient.

Pointing to large and growing diversions of instructional money, reformers contend that Texas schools are failing students.

“We are arguing that the system is not efficient — a term that is in the state constitution,” says Randan Steinhauser, a leader in the school-reform movement. “It’s not fiscally efficient and it’s not adequately educating students.”

Court briefs reviewed by note that:

  • Less than half of total school revenue ($50 billion) is actually spent on instruction ($24 billion).
  • Teachers make an average of $8,859 less than support staff (not including administrators).
  • Texas school districts have a fund balance exceeding $9.5 billion.
  • From fiscal 1992 to fiscal 2009, Texas’ student population increased 3 percent while school district administrators and other non-teaching staff grew 172 percent.

“Public schools in Texas would have saved almost $6.4 billion if they had not increased the employment of administrators and other non-teaching staff more than the increase in students,” says Peggy Venable, policy and legislative director at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation of Texas.

Venable adds that the cost of lawsuits is also siphoning public funds. She conservatively estimated that $50 million in legal fees have been spent by districts to sue, repeatedly, over funding.

The efficiency argument is gathering steam in advance of the Supreme Court’s scheduled Sept. 1 hearing. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn — a former state attorney general and Supreme Court justice — and former Sen. Phil Gramm are filing supportive briefs with the high court.

Pastors of some of the largest congregations in the state are urging the court to add private school vouchers to address the inefficiency issue. They say per-pupil funding should go with the child to foster choice in education — not to top-heavy government bureaucracies.

Instead of going to classrooms, “money is lining the pockets of superintendents,” Steinhauser said.

RELATED: Three Texas districts mired in fiscal scandals

Charter school advocates are also weighing in, charging that “artificial limits” on the independently operated, publicly funded campuses restrict educational opportunities for Texas children.

“Charter school funding is inequitable,” says Steinhauser. “That’s part of the conversation.”

Even so, lesser-funded charter schools routinely outperform their conventional counterparts.

Though accounting for only 600 of Texas’ 8,574 public schools, 18 charters earned the state’s top five-star academic rating. Just 28 conventional schools scored that high.

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Contact him at

School Choice for Special-Needs Students

August 10, 2015 by

Other children like our son would benefit from having vouchers that increase their options.

The Wall Street Journal


My wife, Liz, and I have a 5-year-old son named Sam who, along with his little brother, Pete, is our pride and joy. Sam was diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder at age 4. The symptoms of ASD vary but are characterized by social deficits and repetitive behavior. His doctor says he is high-functioning, which means that with the right schooling, therapies, teachers and family support Sam could be “mainstreamed” into a regular classroom with his peers in the future.

But getting from here to there is going to take enormous effort, and our local public school has already shown an unwillingness to help. Sam is old enough to attend kindergarten in the fall, but after reading his progress reports and listening to his therapists, Liz and I agreed he was not ready to tackle the added challenges of kindergarten. His language skills are still delayed and he has sensory and social issues that could use another year of work.

Our son was evaluated by the special-education personnel in our public-school district, and we were told he qualified to attend a general education pre-K class for part of the school day and receive therapy in the special-education classroom the other part of the time. We also got him into applied-behavior-analysis (ABA) therapy outside of the school system that was recommended to us by the pediatric neuropsychiatrist who diagnosed him.

So we asked for a meeting with local public-school officials to see if we could keep our son back a year. To our surprise, there were 11 school representatives at the 90-minute meeting, yet not one was qualified to render a decision. We wrote a follow-up letter expressing our disappointment and requested a second meeting.

The second meeting had even more people in attendance and lasted nearly two hours, at the end of which the school administrators said they could not grant Sam an extra year of preschool. Sadly, it was clear to us that pushing him through the system was more important to them than giving him a chance to perform at grade level.

At that point we had no choice but to enroll him in a private, faith-based school where he can repeat his pre-K year and continue an ABA program in the afternoon. We hope this will give Sam the support he needs. This school is aware of his condition and is willing to work with us and our son in conjunction with his ABA therapist to make sure he will be ready for kindergarten.

Thankfully, we could afford to send our son to a nearby private school. But in many families that isn’t an option. For the great majority of children with learning and physical disabilities, the best they can hope for is whatever their local public schools can provide. Too often what is provided is a subpar education that fails to meet the needs of this population. That’s not only unfair, it’s unjust.

That is why, when Americans discuss the need for school choice and vouchers, we should consider students with special needs like our son Sam. Society’s goal should be to give special-needs children their full measure of dignity and opportunity at a school where they can better learn, adapt and thrive. These schools exist, and vouchers can make them more affordable. The schools often are expensive—because it does take more to educate a child with disabilities. But these children, regardless of their parents’ income, deserve a quality education and a chance at life.

A few leaders have pushed back. Jeb Bush is one of them. When he became governor of Florida in the late 1990s he helped to create the state’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. Founded in 1999, the statewide program provides “scholarships for eligible students with disabilities to attend an eligible public or private school of their choice.”

The program is still thriving long after Gov. Bush’s second term ended in 2007, and 28,370 students from 1,248 private schools participated in 2013-14. Students with disabilities ranging from blindness to dyslexia to autism-spectrum disorder received in total more than $180 million in scholarships.

That’s a model that if implemented in more states would help many thousands of kids like our son Sam, and many parents who can’t afford what is often most important in their child’s education: a choice.

Mr. Chiapelas lives in St. Louis.

Tar Heel School Voucher Victory

July 29, 2015 by

School vouchers may be the most effective anti-poverty program around, yet they’re fought tooth and hammer by the teachers unions. Late last week the North Carolina Supreme Court awarded a victory to poor kids by protecting vouchers from another union attack.

Two years ago Tar Heel Republicans passed a modest reform offering low-income students $4,200 scholarships to attend qualifying private schools. The law requires, among other things, that private schools report graduation rates and test scores. It also mandates an annual report comparing the learning gains of voucher recipients and public school students.

Taxpayer plaintiffs backed by the union argued in a lawsuit that vouchers accomplish no “public purpose” because private schools don’t have to adhere to such state educational standards as teacher licensing requirements. You have to admire the gall of a union to argue that private schools are “unaccountable” when only one in five black fourth-graders at North Carolina public schools scored proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2013. According to the Institute for Justice, which represented voucher parents in the case, five of six low-income students fail the state’s end-of-grade math or reading tests.

North Carolina’s high court ruled 4-3 that vouchers serve a public purpose, and we’d say an urgent one. Last year about 4,500 qualifying low-income families applied for 2,400 slots in the state lottery, though only 1,200 vouchers were awarded because of a court injunction. Now that vouchers are out of legal limbo, some Republican legislators hope to expand the program and raise income eligibility limits. Good idea.

While the ruling is a victory for poor children, the case is a reminder that the unions will do everything possible to preserve their monopoly control over the lives of millions they fail to teach. It’s the greatest scandal in American public life.

Parent-Trigger V-Day

July 21, 2015 by

Alexander Hamilton said an independent judiciary is essential to guard against “serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.” Last week a California judge reaffirmed this wisdom by overruling local school district officials who tried to thwart parents from using the state’s parent-trigger law.

In January parents filed a petition to convert Palm Lane Elementary in Anaheim into a charter under California’s 2010 parent-trigger law, which allows a majority of parents in any failing school to force changes. Palm Lane had made the state Department of Education’s list of underperforming schools since 2003. Fewer than 40% of students scored proficient in English in 2013. About 85% are Hispanic, and most are low-income.

School district officials and the teachers union tried to stymie parents at every turn. The union even complained that signature gatherers were bribing parents with free iPads, a false allegation that the district superintendent repeated in a cautionary letter to parents. In February the school district rejected the petition on dubious grounds, which included claims that parents had made paperwork errors, such as failing to “submit a separate document that identifies the lead petitioners.”

Though more than 60% of parents signed the petition, the district threw out dozens of signatures that could not be “verified.” That is, the parents could not be reached between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to confirm that they signed the petition. Maybe that’s because they were working. This left parents 12 signatures short of the 50% threshold, so they sued the district for improperly rejecting the petition.

Last Thursday Orange County Superior Court judge Andrew Banks ruled in favor of the parents on all counts and rebuked the district’s conduct as “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair.” He also scored district officials for violating their obligation under the trigger law to work in good faith with parents—a responsibility many other districts have disregarded as well.

Judge Banks has ordered the district to accept the petition and allow parents to immediately begin soliciting charter school proposals. Palm Lane will become the second school in California where parents have successfully triggered large-scale reform. There would be more if unions working with district officials hadn’t intimidated parent organizers.

Palm Lane parents were assisted by the trigger law’s author, former state Democratic Senator Gloria Romero, who helped seek outside legal counsel. The case shows how far the union and administrative bureaucracy will go to preserve their monopoly, even breaking the law. Palm Lane’s parents are heroes for fighting back, but the scandal is how hard they had to fight to fulfill a basic legal right.


All Arne’s Children

July 14, 2015 by

Arne Duncan has had his good moments supporting charter schools, but the Education Secretary continues to fight vouchers for private schools. So it’s worth noting that he has decided to send his own children to a private school in Chicago.

During his time in Washington, Mr. Duncan’s two children have been attending public schools in suburban Virginia. But his wife has now moved back to Chicago, and come fall their children will study at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools—which he attended and where tuition runs about $30,000 a year. That’s also where Barack and Michelle Obama sent their children before moving to Washington and sending Sasha and Malia to the tony Sidwell Friends.

Mr. Duncan’s choice is all the more striking since he used to run the Chicago public schools. He also stood aside in 2009 when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin managed to kill the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington until Speaker John Boehner and the Republican Congress revived it.

The Education Secretary was also a muted voice when the Obama Justice Department filed a lawsuit aimed at scuttling Louisiana’s innovative voucher program. And he was silent again when the Colorado Supreme Court recently invoked a leftover of 19th-century bigotry—its anti-Catholic Blaine amendment—to stop students from receiving vouchers for private schools.

We wish Arne Duncan’s children every success. Too bad he didn’t fight for similar options for families not as fortunate as his.

The Teachers Union Votes Hillary

July 14, 2015 by

So much for liberating poor kids from failing schools.

Wall Street Journal

July 12, 2015 6:48 p.m. ET

While the media chase the Bernie Sanders rallies, keep your eye on the political crowds that matter. On Saturday the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsed Hillary Clinton—16 months before Election Day.

This counts in the fight for the Democratic Party nomination because the 1.6 million member union boasts it can make a million phone calls and knock on 500,000 doors. Bernie’s Birkenstock irregulars can’t match that political power and money.

The endorsement is even more notable as another sign of Hillary’s left political turn. Democrats in New York and elsewhere have been debating education reform, but by embracing the AFT Mrs. Clinton is choosing the union status quo that opposes school choice and teacher accountability.

Listen to AFT president Randi Weingarten’s endorsement: “Hillary understands that to reclaim the promise of public education, policy makers need to work with educators and their unions. She’s ready to work with us to confront the issues facing children and their families today, including poverty, wage stagnation, income inequality and lack of opportunity.” Translation: Mrs. Clinton will send unions more money without hassling them on tenure and charter schools.

At the AFT executive council meeting in June, Mrs. Clinton sent the same signal by declaring that, “It is just dead wrong to make teachers the scapegoats for all of society’s problems. Where I come from, teachers are the solution. And I strongly believe that unions are part of the solution, too.”

The AFT wouldn’t be backing Hillary this early if it didn’t expect to be repaid in policy if she wins. Poor children will be the losers.

Nevada Places a Bet on School Choice

June 15, 2015 by


Education savings accounts are available to all of the state’s 385,000 public-school students.

June 14, 2015 6:06 p.m. ET

Nevada recently became the fifth state to enact the nation’s most systemic K-12 funding reform: education savings accounts. ESAs allow parents to pull their children out of public schools and put the allotted tax dollars toward an education they prefer. This makes the phrase “school choice” a reality.

Unlike vouchers, which make public dollars available only for private- school tuition, the savings accounts can be used for a range of educational options, for private schools or distance learning, tutoring, computer software, educational therapies, public-school classes and activities, and community college classes. Any money left after graduation can be put toward college. This will give Nevada parents more than $5,000 to work with.

Education savings accounts are an innovation; they harness the capacity of modern technology to deliver high-quality, tailored education to every child in the state. Families can mix and match educational offerings to meet their children’s needs and aptitudes, perhaps combining interactive distance learning with a local high- school chemistry lab and a tutor in mathematics.

The savings accounts, first proposed a decade ago by the Goldwater Institute, where I work, weren’t pressed into service until 2009. That’s when the Arizona Supreme Court struck down school vouchers for disabled and foster children under the state’s Blaine Amendment, which forbids the use of public funds in private or sectarian schools. Vouchers violated the Blaine Amendment, the court reasoned, because they could only be used in private schools.

But what if public funds were available not only for private schools but also for a broad array of educational options? The Arizona Legislature enacted ESAs for disabled and foster children, depositing 90% of each child’s state education funds into an account featuring a debit card that can be used to purchase educational services from public or private providers. Local school property taxes remain untouched and available to public schools.

Like vouchers, education savings accounts were challenged in court for violating the Blaine Amendment in 2011. But because the funds were not limited to private schools, the legality of ESAs was upheld. As Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Jon Thompson observed in a 2013 ruling, “Parents can use the funds deposited in the . . . account to customize an education that meets their children’s unique educational needs.” Arizona has expanded ESA eligibility to include children in public schools receiving D or F grades and military families. Legislation sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Carlyle Begay to provide ESAs for children on Indian reservations goes into effect this fall.

Last year, Florida—whose Supreme Court also had earlier struck down vouchers—enacted ESAs for severely disabled children. The savings accounts are especially useful for families whose children have special needs that require individualized approaches that often are not found in public schools. As in Arizona, ESAs were challenged in court and upheld.

This year education savings accounts were enacted in three states where earlier there was resistance to school choice: Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. The savings accounts in the first two states are limited to children with special needs.

But Nevada’s program is available to all of the state’s 385,000 public- school students. Most children will receive 90% of the state’s education contribution, or about $5,100. But children with disabilities or in low-income families will receive the full per-pupil amount, roughly $5,700. For the first time since the nation’s first voucher program was enacted in Milwaukee 25 years ago, this year more than half of the states plus the District of Columbia have some form of private school choice. BUT NOT TEXAS (added by poster) 

Teachers unions fiercely opposed the bill. “This is a ploy by those who deplore public education and want to destroy it,” charged Democratic state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse. But that tired argument lost.

The emergence of education savings accounts may mark the beginning of the end for an ossified education-delivery system that is has changed little since the 19th century. It begins an important shift of government from a monopoly provider of education into an enabler of education in whatever form or forum it most benefits the child.

By reducing the need for bureaucracies and capital construction, education savings accounts can reverse the ever-growing costs of public education, even as the accounts provide resources for families to save for college. They can help surmount Blaine Amendment obstacles that appear in about two-thirds of state constitutions. Most important, they hitch public policy to infinite technological possibilities, creating the first truly 21st-century education model wherein public funding follows the child.

Mr. Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute.

Copyright 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Bad Deal in Baltimore

May 20, 2015 by

Wall Street Journal
Progressives and unions gut a charter-school reform.

May 18, 2015 6:37 p.m. ET

The Baltimore riots produced national lamentations about urban poverty, but don’t expect much to be done about it. Witness how the Maryland legislature gutted a charter-school reform that could have offered an escape for poor children.
Baltimore schools are some of the worst in the country. According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a mere 14% of Baltimore fourth graders and 16% of eighth graders were proficient in reading. One in four students fails to graduate from high school. This is a disgrace.

Many states have used charter schools as an alternative to let educators operate without the rules that favor teacher tenure and other protections over student learning in failing schools. But Maryland’s chartering law is one of the stingiest. It makes local school boards the sole chartering authority, and they see charters as competition. The state also limits the freedom of charter schools to innovate and demand high performance.
Baltimore has successes such as KIPP schools among its 31 charter schools teaching some 11,000 students, though those are remarkably small numbers for a city its size. In 2013 New York City had 70,000 students in 183 charter schools, rising to 210 for 2015-2016. More than 11,000 Maryland students are on charter waiting lists. That’s because, even with the state’s restrictions, charter students outperform those in traditional public schools in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math.
The tragedy is that last week Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill that leaves the city’s relatively few charter schools under the sway of the teachers unions. The new Governor’s original plan would have allowed charters to operate outside union collective-bargaining agreements, given charter operators greater autonomy over staffing and improved the state’s funding formula.
Those goals died at the hands of Democrats who dominate the state legislature, in particular state senator and former teachers union member Paul Pinsky. One of the first reforms killed was a measure to give charters the choice of participating in a collective-bargaining agreement. So charters must continue to answer to unions for work rules, tenure, even pay.
The reform victories that survived are modest. If a charter school has a good track record for five years, it can request exemptions from “textbook, instructional program, professional development and scheduling requirements.” How generous—a mere five-year wait to design a better curriculum. The law also requires the school district to let teachers transfer to charters if they want to go, and gives charters more control over the assignment of school principals.
Meanwhile, the Center for Education Reform notes that the law takes away much of the State Board of Education’s power to review local school-district actions on charters and makes it harder for the Governor to shape policy through appointments to the board. Under the new law, no plan for a charter school “may be construed to take precedence over an agreement of a local bargaining unit in a local school system.”
All of this reflects the power that government unions have over Democrats in Maryland, one of the country’s most left-leaning states. It also reveals the disconnect between the left’s rhetoric on poverty and its refusal to change the policies and practices that destroy economic opportunity. Look for another generation of education failure in Baltimore, and more riots down the road.

President Obama, Are You Listening?

May 2, 2015 by

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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