EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan has decided not to admit any new students
to the D.C. voucher program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools. The abrupt decision -- made a week after 200 families had been told that their children were being awarded scholarships for the coming fall -- comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it's clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way.
Officials who manage the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program sent letters this week to parents notifying them that the scholarships of up to $7,500, were being
rescinded because of the decision by the Education Department. Citing the political uncertainty surrounding vouchers, a spokesperson for Mr. Duncan told us that it is not in the best interest of students and their parents to enroll them in a program that may end a year from now. Congress conditioned funding beyond the 2009-10 school year on reauthorization by Congress and approval by the D.C. Council. By presuming the program dead -- and make no mistake, that's the insidious effect of his bar on new enrollment -- Mr. Duncan makes it even more difficult for the program to get the fair hearing it deserves.
The decision is troubling for several reasons. First, as the article cites, there is evidence that the voucher program was improving education. This should surprise no one. Any program that expands school choice and increases competition leads directly to better education. The voucher program allows low income families vouchers to allow their kids to attend private schools. Giving them these vouchers allows parents access to more schools. Furthermore, the extra layer of competition forces public schools to increase their own performance in a way that their monopoly does NOT.
Of course, private schools employ teachers not in the teacher's unions, and so this is one of the many school choice programs opposed by the teacher's union. As I have pointed out, Arne Duncan has a history of taking on the teacher's union when CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. So, this action which is a clear lay down to the unions is more than troubling.
President Obama has an aggressive and sweeping education policy and there is much of it that I like. If it is to be successful, the administration would have to take on the teacher's union directly on several issues including merit pay, and the expansion of charter schools. There is a lot in President Obama's educational agenda that the teacher's union doesn't like. In order for him to succeed, he will soon enough have to take them on directly. If the administration laid down so weakly on the relatively unimportant issue of D.C. school vouchers, it doesn't bode well for the rest of his agenda.