Democrats kill school choice…again

Patrick Gibbons

Earlier this year, Democrats in Congress killed a school-choice bill called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which gave low-income students scholarships to attend private schools. Democrats told the D.C. public school system to be prepared to reenroll the 1,700 students currently accepting vouchers by 2010. The program cost just $14 million a year, peanuts considering the billions Congress gives to multibillion-dollar corporations. Interestingly, it turns out Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sat on evidence that the school-choice program actually improved student achievement – specifically in reading.

This is not something to ignore, considering the Obama administration’s promises of education reform, when the reforms have proven to work. Of course, it’s easier to kill a program that works if you hide the evidence.

Naturally, an eruption ensued in the news media and with education pundits across the country. Special thanks to Dr. Jay P. Greene and Dr. Matthew Ladner over at for collecting this information:

• Wall Street Journal – “Voucher recipients were tested last spring. The scores were analyzed in the late summer and early fall, and in November preliminary results were presented to a team of advisers who work with the Education Department to produce the annual evaluation. Since Education officials are intimately involved in this process, they had to know what was in this evaluation even as Democrats passed (and Mr. Obama signed) language that ends the program after next year.”

• Washington Post – The Post objected to Secretary of Ed Arne Duncan’s rush to shut down the D.C. voucher program in the face of positive results. “We had hoped that Mr. Duncan, who prides himself in being a pragmatist interested in programs that work, would have a more open mind…. So it’s perplexing that Mr. Duncan, without any further discussion or analysis, would be so quick to kill a program that is supported by local officials and that has proven popular with parents. Unless, of course, politics enters the calculation in the form of Democratic allies in Congress who have been shameless in their efforts to kill vouchers.”

• Cato Institute – Andrew Coulson emphasized the positive results at a fraction of the cost of D.C. public-school spending per pupil. D.C. public schools spend $26,000 per student, while the private schools accepting voucher kids charge just $6,600.

• National Review Online -Matt Ladner asks: “If you have any doubt as to whether this program should exist, ask yourself a simple question: Would you enroll your children in violence-ridden D.C. public schools with decades-long records of academic failure? Bill and Hillary Clinton didn’t. Barack and Michelle Obama didn’t. Members of Congress don’t. What about you? Would you enroll your children in those schools?”

• Patrick McIlheran at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – “The students were tested in the spring, the results analyzed in the summer and the preliminary findings given to the team working with the Department of Education in November. Why, then, didn’t the department chime in when Congress was ending choice?”

• Joanne Jacobs asks: “What did Education Secretary Arne Duncan know about the study’s findings and when did he know it? Duncan had to know during the voucher reauthorization debate that D.C.’s program is advancing students by nearly half a year, editorializes the Wall Street Journal. Why didn’t he speak up?”

• Michelle Malkin writes: “It would have been helpful to know about a Department of Education study on D.C.’s school choice initiative before the Democrats – beholden to teachers unions allergic to competition – voted to starve the innovative program benefiting poor, minority children in the worst school district in the nation. Somehow, the results of the study conducted last spring didn’t surface until now.”

• Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation argues: “Kids in the D.C. Opportunity scholarship program deserve the same chance to go to a higher quality school as President Obama’s own children. The taxpayers of the United States deserve at least one education program that actually gets results in exchange for the money.”
Remember, school choice, parental choice and education reform are not Republican vs. Democrat issues. There are many Democrats who support serious education reform – indeed, an entire group called Democrats for Education Reform.

As Matt Ladner pointed out, even California’s regularly liberal Sen. Feinstein supported the program when it was created, saying, “Why should the poor child not have the same access as the wealthy child does? That is all he is asking for. He is saying let’s try it for 5 years, and then let’s compare progress and let’s see if this model can work for these District youngsters.”

Sen. Feinstein went on: “I have gotten a lot of flak because I am supporting it. And guess what. I do not care. I have finally reached the stage in my career, I do not care. I am going to do what I sincerely believe is right.”

Choice works because it provides strong incentives to reward success – while punishing failure. The status quo offers us only unaccountable public monopolies, and since when has a public monopoly ever served the public good?

The school choice movement is growing more and more popular as evidence demonstrating that these programs work continues to mount. So why on earth would an elite few destroy a program that helps the most needy among us?

As Sen. Feinstein said, this is about doing what is right.