The Blog

Not Free to Choose

D.C. students and parents rally for school-choice.

12:00 AM, Oct 8, 2009 • By SHERYL BLUNT
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Anger and frustration over President Obama's anti-voucher stance and his administration's refusal to allow new students into the program was a recurrent theme at the rally. Earlier this year 216 students had their 2009-2010 scholarships rescinded by the Department of Education after the agency announced it was closing the program to new applicants. A spokesperson for the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF) that manages the program, said the organization actually received over 600 scholarship applications this year, but had to stop processing them after the administration announced its decision.

"The president knows what a difference school choice makes," said William Oberndorf, former chairman of the Alliance for School Choice who said he came from California to attend the rally. "He attended Hawaii's most expensive private school from fifth grade on, on a scholarship."

At a September 29 hearing Sen. Durbin indicated--in a surprising reversal from previous statements--that he would be open to reauthorizing the scholarship program as long as it was accompanied by increased oversight.

"I have to work with my colleagues if this is going to be reauthorized, which it might be," he said at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which he chairs. He also acknowledged that "many students are getting a good education from the program."

In May, Durbin met with a group of scholarship students and their parents at Holy Redeemer School in Northwest. Archdiocese of Washington spokesperson Kathy Dempsey said the voucher participants "spoke passionately and eloquently on why the program should be continued."

Gregory Cork, the WSF's president and CEO, said he was open to stricter oversight, including the requirement of accreditation for all participating schools--something Durbin said he would be pushing for.

"We support accreditation, if that's what it takes," said Cork, "so long as it's fair to the schools and gives them ample time.... There's a solution here. We can meet the concerns and needs of Congress, and above all, the concerns and needs of families, and have a good program."

While voucher critics, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, continue to claim that the program helps too few students and that federal dollars should be spent on improving D.C.'s troubled public schools, D.C. parents made clear that they are not willing to wait for such improvements.

Holding a sign that read, "School Choice Now!" D.C. resident April Cole-Walton teared up when asked about the program. "Parents know what's best for their children and we want Congress to hear us," said Cole-Walton, whose 10-year-old daughter is attending St. Peter's Parish on Capitol Hill on a scholarship. "We put so much money into other things. What about our kids? We hear about money going to all these banks and companies that are getting bailed out. Everyone's getting bailed out, except our children."

"We will lose these kids if they don't have the education they need now," said Cole-Walton. "This is our future. Right here. Now."

Sheryl Henderson Blunt is a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow.