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Why is Mayor Gray jeopardizing aid for school choice in the District?

Letter to the Editor
Washington Post
April 13, 2012

The emerging centerpiece of education reform in the United States is parental school choice. All over this country, progressive, forward-looking public officials are supporting legislation that expands quality educational options for the children of working-class parents. It is finally sinking in that more quality options lead to improvements in traditional school districts.

For instance, legislators in Alabama and Mississippi are responding to parents’ outcry and are close to passing the first-ever meaningful charter school bills in those states. Similarly, just last week, a bipartisan group of legislators in the Louisiana House of Representatives passed a measure designed to expand statewide the successful New Orleans voucher program. Today, a growing number of leaders are realizing that true education reform includes long-range, systemic change along with immediate relief for families in need. Yes, we must fly the plane while we fix it.

Here, in the District, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of providing quality educational options, through innovative charter schools and our highly successful, federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, through which more than 1,600 low-income children attend quality private schools. But all of that is being threatened by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).

The release of Mr. Gray’s 2013 budget proposal makes clear that parental choice is no longer a priority of his administration. In the proposal, he breaches a promise made to charter school supporters by not closing the funding disparity between charter schools and traditional D.C. public schools.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Mr. Gray’s proposal also zeroes out the funding for the scholarship program — matching what President Obama did in his budget. This action could ultimately imperil $60 million in federal funds intended to support D.C. charter schools, D.C. Public Schools and the scholarship program. This three-sector initiative has brought in more than $300 million in federal funds to our city for educational improvement since 2004 and has helped thousands of children gain access to a good education.

As the chief executive of the city, it’s Mr. Gray’s job to do what’s best for the city, regardless of what the president proposes. Why would he jeopardize funds from the federal government that raise all boats?

We strongly urge the mayor to remember what is important. It is not where a child is educated, it is about ensuring that every child has equal access to a high-quality education. That’s the power of parental choice and the reason that the District has been a model for providing these options to parents.

Instead of removing these options or watering them down, the mayor should be standing with the parents, their kids and the vast majority of D.C. residents who support all forms of parental school choice. Let’s also hope that during the city’s budget process, the D.C. Council fixes what the mayor is trying to break.

Kevin P. Chavous and Donald L. Hense, Washington

Kevin P. Chavous is a former D.C. Council member (D-Ward 7) and a senior adviser to the American Federation for Children. Donald L. Hense is the co-founder and board chair of Friendship Public Charter Schools.

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