Two years ago this month Tiffany Dunston stood before her Archbishop Carroll High School classmates, family and friends in Washington, D.C., as valedictorian. A decade ago she couldn't have imagined it.
Raised by her grandmother because her mother’s personal struggles made it difficult to provide for her child, Tiffany showed lots of potential. Unlocking it would require a good education, her grandmother knew. Education would be Tiffany's key to a better future.
That resolve was strengthened by a tragedy that struck the family when Tiffany was about 12. Her 17-year-old cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting. He had been the “hope of the family,” doing well in school and headed to college.
Profoundly affected by the event, Tiffany vowed to fulfill his dream of going to college.
Sadly, her public school would be more of a hindrance than a help in that goal. It was among the worst in Washington, D.C. -- and that’s saying something.
Despite spending about $16,000 annually per student (among the highest amount in the nation), D.C. schools rank among the lowest in academic achievement. Almost half the students don't even make it through the 12th grade. Almost one out of eight has been threatened with weapon.
Clearly, public school held little promise for Tiffany. But other doors seemed closed, since her grandmother couldn't afford a private school.
Educational opportunity might have remained a distant dream, but a scholarship helped her escape the troubled public high school in her neighborhood and attend Archbishop Carroll, a Catholic high school with excellent academics, instead. She did so well that she graduated at the top of her class in 2008.
Now Tiffany has just finished her second year at a university in New York, where she’s off to a great start, achieving her college dream.
"Thousands of low-income students like Tiffany have benefited from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), passed by Congress in 2004. Currently, 1,300 are enrolled in private schools thanks to the scholarships"
Imagine the pride and joy of her grandmother.
And then imagine the surprise and outrage when Tiffany and her grandmother learned that Congress and the Obama administration are blocking the path of young women and men who would like to follow in her footsteps.
Thousands of low-income students like Tiffany have benefited from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), passed by Congress in 2004. Currently, 1,300 are enrolled in private schools thanks to the scholarships.
But Congress seems determined to make these the last D.C. children to have that opportunity. Because they've refused to let any new students enter the program, little brothers and sisters of today's scholarship students will be turned away, along with thousands of others hoping to escape the public school monopoly that’s failing them. They seek the opportunity to learn in a safe and effective school.
Why do some oppose this educational opportunity? They certainly can’t blame it on lack of positive results.
Parents are delighted with the program. After years of anxiety over their children's school environment, parents say they can trust teachers to care about their children and school culture to influence them positively.
"President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan know the benefits of school choice firsthand. Both had the opportunity to attend private schools, and the president was himself a beneficiary of a scholarship."
Students feel safe, and test scores are on the rise. An evaluation in 2009 showed that DCOSP students are three months ahead of their peers in reading.
That leaves scholarship students and their families asking why the Obama administration and Congress would block the door to educational opportunity for the very students who need it most. After all, these officials certainly exercise their own educational freedom.
President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan know the benefits of school choice firsthand. Both had the opportunity to attend private schools, and the president was himself a beneficiary of a scholarship. President Obama also made the smart decision to send his two daughters a D.C. private school. (Two voucher students attend the same school.) Secretary Duncan chose to live outside Washington, D.C. so that his family could access Virginia's superior public schools.
"The case of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is an example of how the path of big government has led to an educational dead end for too many students. If Congress continues to push schools down this path, it will jeopardize the future of another generation of children."
Members of Congress value educational choice as well. Thirty-eight percent of members have sent a child to a private school.
Most low-income parents can only hope for such an opportunity for their children. That's why it’s so important that families who have experienced educational choice are speaking out on behalf of all parents. They’re making their voices heard by testifying on Capitol Hill, rallying for the educational choice, and telling their stories in Let Me Rise, a 25-minute documentary about the struggle for school choice in our nation’s capital.
D.C. families are fighting for the future of their children, but the showdown in our nation’s capital is a bellwether for educational freedom across the United States.
American education is at a crossroads. One path leads to further centralization and fewer individual choices. On this path, Washington will set standards, control testing, and even monitor “school climate.” Teacher unions will continue to dictate the terms of national education policy.
The other path leads to restored parental authority, a return to the constitutional principle that education is a state and local matter, and educational opportunity through school choice.
The case of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is an example of how the path of big government has led to an educational dead end for too many students. If Congress continues to push schools down this path, it will jeopardize the future of another generation of children.
America is the land of opportunity. Let’s make sure that includes educational freedom.
As Director of Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, Jennifer A. Marshall oversees the Foundation’s Leadership for America Education Initiative, which seeks to ensure that all parents are able to choose safe and effective educational options that prepare young people to maintain and expand the blessings and responsibilities of a free society. To learn more and to view Let Me Rise, visit heritage.org.