Advocates for high-quality public schools for all children suffered a setback this week when reports surfaced of a compromise between the Obama administration and Congressional leaders that would once again provide funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in the FY2013 Financial Services Appropriations bill.
This “opportunity scholarship”—which is simply a voucher for low-income students in the District of Columbia to attend private and parochial schools—currently serves some 1,615 students and would be expanded to serve up to 1,700 at the cost of $20 million. Supporters of the program say that it has improved educational outcomes for many of the District’s neediest students. However, evaluation reports of the program have not proven this to be the case. In fact, four Congressionally mandated studies (See links: Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4) have concluded that it did not significantly improve reading or math achievement for its participants; it had no effect on student satisfaction, motivation or engagement, or student views on school safety; and the students in the voucher program were less likely to have access to key services such as ESL programs, learning supports, special education supports and services, and counselors than students who were not part of the program.
Why is it that policy makers keep insisting on creating so-called opportunities for a small, select group of students instead of focusing on providing a fair and substantive opportunity to learn for ALL students? What more will it take for decision makers to recognize that saving some (while admirable) while leaving others behind (absolutely criminal) cannot be the goal if we are to assure every child the kind of high-quality education that prepares them for college, career, and civic life? When will we as a society understand that we absolutely cannot close the achievement gap until we find the courage and political will to close the opportunity gap?
Life is full of winners and losers. Some of us are blessed with everything we need to be successful in life while some of us are left behind to make it on our own. Isn’t it time policy makers realize that winning and losing should be left to those engaged in sporting events? Shouldn’t we all do whatever it takes to ensure that providing equity of resources and opportunity is the ONLY answer to the question of what does real education reform look like?
If members of Congress and the president want to know how to spend $20 million dollars in a way that will advance our country’s economy stability, ensure our national security, and maintain our precious democracy, I’ve got four ideas for them. Spend it on providing high quality, early childhood education for every child. Invest it in recruiting, properly training and retaining well-prepared, highly effective teachers and doing what is necessary to get those teachers in front of our most needy students. Spend it on providing a college and career ready curriculum for every child. And use it to provide equitable resources and policies for every student, regardless of their ZIP code. In short, instead of spending $20 million dollars on an “opportunity scholarship” for 1,700 kids, why not spend it on providing an opportunity to learn for ALL of our nation’s children. Anything short of that is robbing our most precious resources of the opportunity to reach their full potential and is inevitably condemning our nation to a bleak future, both here at home and abroad. This is a vision that takes us well past the November elections—where short-sighted political horse trading might get us—all the way to a 2020 vision of outpacing the rest of the world in the number of U.S. college graduates.