School Choice is the freedom that saves kids’ futures

While the $410 billion price tag on Congress’ omnibus spending bill gets all the media’s attention, low-income school children in Washington, DC are more concerned about what it may do to their education opportunities.

Congressional leaders are using this legislation to kill a popular and successful school choice program for the most disadvantage children in the city.  President Barack Obama, who has demonstrated his preference for school choice by sending his children to the prestigious and private Sidwell Friends School, should tell Congress to leave the DC school choice program alone.  In fact, its expansion might also help solve the city’s growing budget problems.   

Obama was right when he said in his recent address to a joint session of Congress, “In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father&hellipresponsibility for our children’s education must begin at home.”

And there is no better way to help a parent participate in their child’s education than by empowering them with the ability to send their children to the school of their choice, rather than the school they are relegated to by their zip code.

Barack and Michelle Obama do not send their kids to the school 1600 Pennsylvania Ave would have them go to.  We all should all be so freed from the confines of our home address.

The District of Columbia already provides some choice for parents.  Chancellor Michelle Rhee oversees a unique school system combining typical public schools with a charter system and a voucher program.

The charter schools often carry fewer restrictions than other public schools, offer options to parents by providing various services to students and an alternative to their local school. Obama rightly called on Congress to “expand our commitment to charter schools.”

In addition, 1,716 District children take part in the federal Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides school vouchers to low-income families.  The average family using the vouchers earns about $22,000 per year.

Parents of children in the program receive up to $7,500 that they can take to a private or public school of their choice to cover part or all of the costs.  Over 80 percent of the students in the District’s voucher program use the vouchers at private schools. 

However, the program is funded only through the 2009-2010 school year and will come up for review before a House subcommittee next year.  The omnibus spending bill passed by the House on Wednesday will require the D.C. government to create legislation in addition to Congressional approval before the program is allowed to continue.

Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should ask Congress to strip this provision from the spending bill to make it easier for the scholarship program to continue. 

The District can also build on this scholarship program as a way to ease the budget crunch it currently faces.  The District is running a $258 million deficit in fiscal year 2009 and new estimates from the District’s chief financial officer say that number could go as high as $400 billion, and may reach $1 billion by 2011.

There are about 49,000 students in public schools in the city on which taxpayers are spending, according to the Cato Institute, $24,000 each – nearly enough to pay the $29,000 for tuition at Sidwell Friends.

If those children received a voucher from the city for $12,500 (the average cost of a private school in the District) to attend any school their parents wished, then the city could save up to $465 million. 

The ability of parents to choose the school in which their child is educated would drive public schools to compete with private ones—improving education for all District pupils.  Why should taxpayers have to spend twice as much on public school when vouchers could cost less than half as much and have the same or better results?

The idea may not sound politically feasible, but Mayor Adrian Fenty should note that 69 percent of D.C. residents support the city’s voucher program according to School Choice Digest.

Parents understand the benefits and enjoy the freedom brought by the DC Opportunity Scholarship program.  The Obama’s have shown through their action that they prefer school choice.

Now it is incumbent upon the President to make sure the $410 billion omnibus spending bill doesn’t come between the children of D.C. and their dreams of the best education they can get.

KEY DATA: D.C. could save up to $465 million by giving the parents of each of its 49,000 public school students a scholarship for $12,500 (the average cost of a private school in the District) for tuition at the school of their choice.

TAKEHOME: If school choice is right for Barack and Michelle Obama, why not for the rest of the District’s parents of school-age childrern?

Matt Kibbe is the president of FreedomWorks, a grassroots organization dedicated to lower taxes, less government, and more freedom.