The D.C. voucher movement is picking up steam and is poised to become "a mass movement."

So says D.C. Council member Marion Barry, who led more than one thousand pumped-up supporters of the embattled D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in a rally cry on Capitol Hill September 30 to "Put kids first."

Evoking the words of the spiritual "Go Down Moses," the former D.C. mayor called on President Obama to support the school voucher program that provides federally funded scholarships of up to $7,500 to low-income children to attend private schools.

"Go down, Mr. President, way down in Washington D.C., and let our children go to the school of their choice where they can get a quality education," said Barry, who added that his son benefited from school choice. "A lot of parents don't have that kind of choice," said Barry. "I believe in choice."

The rally marked the culmination of an intense month between voucher supporters and opponents who are struggling to win public opinion to their side.

Enacted in 2004 to provide greater educational options to poor children trapped in D.C.'s failing and low-performing schools, the scholarship program enabled 1,716 students to enroll in 51 private and parochial schools last year, and has served more than 3,000 children since it began. Participating families have an average income of about $24,000.

In March, at the behest of the National Education Association and civil liberty groups including People for the American Way, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) inserted language into the $410 billion omnibus spending bill effectively terminating the program unless Congress reauthorizes it. The Obama administration later announced that it would allow current voucher recipients to remain in the program until they graduate, but was closing the program to new students.

The battle has pitted a growing number of Democratic African-American parents, community leaders and conservative education reform groups, against congressional Democrats backed by teachers unions and other voucher critics.

On the same day as President Obama's September 8 speech to the nation's schoolchildren, pro-voucher African-American civil rights advocates tried to get themselves arrested by holding a civil disobedience protest in front of the U.S. Department of Education. After a standoff with federal law enforcement but no arrests, protesters left feeling they had made their point.

"You may not handcuff me, but you're handcuffing our kids and holding them back," said protest organizer and former Democratic D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous, board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which sponsored the September rally. "We are not going to be deterred from making sure this program is reauthorized. We're willing to put our bodies on the line.... We'll be back."

Supporters say the program has been a lifeline for D.C.'s schoolchildren, whose crime-ridden public schools rank worst in the nation. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress report, by the time D.C. students reach the 8th grade, only 12 percent are proficient in reading and only eight percent are proficient in math. Only nine percent will graduate from college within five years.

"D.C. public schools are horrible," said Tania Phillips, who was attending the rally with her daughter's class from Nannie Helen Borroughs private school in Northeast, where her daughter attends by virtue of a scholarship. "If my child has to go back to public schools, she will not go back to D.C. public schools."

Phillips, who attended D.C.'s public schools herself, said that during her first year at Eastern High School a boy was shot inside the school's cafeteria. Another boy was jumped and kicked in the face on the first day of school and left bloody on the school's sidewalk. "My first year of high school was not what you would want your child to have," said Phillips. "That's the year we got our metal detectors. We weren't allowed to step foot into school unless we had a see-through book bag."

Phillips said she is thrilled with her daughter's performance at the private school, where her grades have improved and where her reading skills are "a whole lot better."

"But what bothers me the most," said Phillips, "is that I voted for Obama, and he's not backing this program."

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.

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