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Editorial: For D.C., reauthorizing school choice is the right choice

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March 14, 2016
The Washington Post

IN THEIR zeal to kill off the federally funded scholarship program for poor D.C. students, opponents have peddled the fiction that Congress foisted the program on an unwilling city. In fact, the program was backed enthusiastically by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and a key D.C. Council member, and parent demand for scholarships far outstrips supply. So let’s hope that a letter from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and a majority of the council urging continued funding for the program finally puts the myth to rest and helps allow more students to benefit from the program.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides needy students with vouchers to attend private schools of their choice, is up for reauthorization. As has happened before with all-too-depressing frequency since the scholarships were established in 2004, the program is under attack from unions and other opponents. If Congress fails to act, the city will also lose out on millions of dollars that go to its traditional and charter public schools as part of the three-sector federal funding deal.

The very real danger of the District losing $150 million in federal funds over five years apparently finally sunk in with members of the council. Three members who previously had urged that the program be killed joined Ms. Bowser and five other members, including council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), in a March 7 letter to congressional leaders in support of the Scholarships for Opportunities and Results (SOAR) Act. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) in a statement called the support of the mayor and council “an important boost” in the effort to get reauthorization to the president’s desk.

We hope so. Mr. Ryan is right that “when we give more families a choice, more students succeed.” Uncertainty about the future of the program is the alleged reason the Education Department has, for several years, put a hold on funds that would allow additional students into the program. Officials with Serving Our Children, the nonprofit that took over administration of the scholarships in October, told us there are more than 1,900 applicants, with more expected, for just 146 new spots next year. If Congress doesn’t reauthorize the program, funding could dry up, with no new students accepted after the 2016-2017 school year. The scholarships provide a lifeline to low-income and underserved families, giving them the school choice that more affluent families take as a given. And because the program results in more federal money for D.C. public education and not less — another myth advanced by opponents — it’s time for Congress to act.

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