In about a month, on February 24, 2020, we will celebrate the birthday of Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Had he not passed away at the end of 2011 from brain cancer, Mr. Robert would be 68 years old. When he was alive he was a ferocious supporter of D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides to children living in poverty free tuition to private elementary and secondary schools. For years Mr. Robert’s organization, the Washington Scholarship Fund, was the administrator of this federal initiative.
Beginning in 2020 the OSP was up for renewal. Supporters, such as Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, sought to make these scholarships available in perpetuity and increase funding to $75 million annually. In the legislation’s early days, Mr. Robert drove bipartisan support for the scholarships by promoting the three-sector approach that gives equal dollars to DCPS, charters, and the voucher plan. Under the most recent proposal, $25 million would have gone to the three groups. Mayor Muriel Bowser, to her tremendous credit, was a strong supporter of the measure.
Now some background. Since 2004, the three-sector initiative has resulted in more than $787 million for Kindergarten to twelfth grade education in Washington, D.C.
Despite the additional funding that this legislation would have brought our city, and ignoring local wishes, U.S. House of Representative Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Representative for the District of Columbia Eleanor Holmes Norton blocked the recent bill. Lost to charters, traditional schools, and the OSP is an additional $15 million each and every year, money that could have gone to support teachers. The most that they would agree to was a four-year extension.
After 20 years of public education reform in the nation’s capital, the achievement gap is holding stubbornly steady at about 60 points. Thousands of kids sit on charter school wait lists. Many traditional schools register English and math proficiency rates in the teens. Despite heroic efforts my many these issues are not going away any time soon. At this point, it makes perfect sense that we should do whatever we can to extend to families all possible options to obtain a quality education for their children. This includes providing private school vouchers to low income students.
I just don’t understand what is going on here. We are talking about our neighbors, with some of the most at-risk kids living in eyesight of the Washington Monument. Where is the sense of justice, equity, and decency that we seek for our society?
Why, in this one simple case, can’t adults just do the right thing?