During a press conference about a new bill that would reauthorize and strengthen the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, parents of children who have an Opportunity Scholarship or parents of children who hope to one day obtain a scholarship listen to U.S. senators speak about the measure.
During a press conference about a new bill that would reauthorize and strengthen the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, parents of children who have an Opportunity Scholarship or parents of children who hope to one day obtain a scholarship listen to U.S. senators speak about the measure.
Many low-income children in the District would continue receiving an opportunity to attend the school of their choice if a bipartisan reauthorization bill to continue the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program passes in Congress. On July 30, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Independent-Conn.) and five other senators introduced the legislation that would extend the federal voucher program for the next five years.

The bill - the "Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act of 2009" or "SOAR Act," - seeks to reauthorize and strengthen the scholarship program that enables 1,700 low-income District children to receive an education at a participating school in the city. The legislation would increase the program's funding to account for inflation over the past five years, and it would give scholarship priority to siblings of current Opportunity scholars. It would also call for new requirements for certificates of occupancy and teacher qualifications.

Other sponsors for this bill include Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) Senator Dianne Feinstein (D -Calif.), Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

Archbishop Donald Wuerl said, "This legislation has put the District's most at-risk children first ... It is our hope that Congress quickly passes SOAR. It is difficult to envision what advantage anyone could find that would outweigh the futures and hopes of the young people in this city." Last year 879 of the 1,700 Opportunity Scholars attended Catholic schools in the District of Columbia.

According to a new poll, nearly three-quarters of District voters support the scholarship program, and a majority of members of the D.C. City Council recently wrote a letter urging that the program be continued.

During a press conference, Sen. Lieberman said the scholarship program is not affiliated with a political party and it's "not a liberal or conservative program - it's a program that puts children first."

But the bill faces opposition from some members of Congress who hope to phase out the program.

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to allow current scholarship students to remain in the program, while barring new students from enrolling in it. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted similarly, but they also added restrictions to the program that some scholarship supporters say will kill the program quickly.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who drafted the bill's restrictive language, said he opposed extending funding for the program because existing legislation did not outline requirements that participating schools have valid certificates of occupancy nor mandate that core-subject teachers have a bachelor's degree.

But the new legislation addresses both of those objections, said Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington.

"With his objections removed, we now look for his support and that of his colleagues for the kids. This is not about politics, but about children and giving at-risk children an excellent education and hope for the future," she said.

If the reauthorization bill passes, it would trump earlier votes to end the program. Sen. Lieberman said he is working with Sen. Durbin to come up with a compromise.

The senators introducing the bill, who spoke about the importance of it at a press conference, faced a room almost entirely full of Opportunity Scholarship supporters. Many were Opportunity Scholarship students from Holy Redeemer School in Northwest and Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast. Mothers also came with their young children - many who will not receive an Opportunity Scholarship unless the reauthorization bill passes. Some students wore stickers that said "What about me?," "Opportunity" and "Hope."

Sen. Lieberman said in a statement, "it is very important to recognize that OSP schools are producing impressive results ... This program - while not the entire solution to the problems that plague the DC public schools - should continue to play a valuable role in improving the educational opportunities for disadvantaged students in the District."

The senator said Opportunity Scholarship students have made "statistically significant" progress compared to their peers who didn't receive scholarships. The scholarship students performed better in reading, and their gains amounted to approximately three months of additional learning,

Sen. Collins said that according to the U.S. Department of Education, 86 percent of Opportunity Scholarship students would be assigned to a failing public school if they weren't in the program. Kevin P. Chavous, a former D.C. City Council member, called on President Barack Obama, who supports phasing out the scholarship program, to remember when he said it would "be a shame for any child to attend a failing school."

Sen. Lieberman said some people see the program as a "threat to public education," but "that's wrong." The program is part of a three-sector approach to improve education in the District, Lieberman noted. Five years ago following a similar bipartisan effort, federal dollars were given to the District to support public and charter schools as well as the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The SOAR Act would authorize $20 million for District of Columbia public schools, $20 million for D.C. public charter schools, and $20 million for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships.

"You can be for this program, and for D.C. public schools as well," he said. There is "nothing inconsistent about it."

Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who supports the Opportunity Scholarship Program, said, "The most important thing a city can do is invest in education."

In a statement he said, "I ask senators to please reauthorize this program that I fought so hard to bring to Washington, D.C., and allow the city's neediest residents, not just those currently in the program, the foundation they need to succeed in life - a good education. The long-term prospects for our city depend on educating our children," he said.

Ragine Stevenson, an Archbishop Carroll student who is a St. Augustine Scholar because she has maintained at least a B average, said she is an Opportunity Scholarship student who has benefited immensely from the program.

"The whole program is good .. it's for people who don't want to settle for less, people who want to do above average. That's why I'm in the Opportunity Scholarship Program," she said.

Yisehak Abraham, another Archbishop Carroll student, a St. Augustine Scholar and an Opportunity Scholar, said he doesn't think a person's financial situation should destroy their chance of receiving a "proper education."

Abraham, who has participated in the program since the fifth grade, said he would have gone to a public school if he didn't have a scholarship.

The school in his neighborhood is not "a nice, decent place where you are able to walk back and forth between classrooms without having to engage in inappropriate behavior," he said.

Rajeeyah Burks, a mother of four young children whose son is an Opportunity Scholarship Student, said, "I thank God" for the scholarship program, because it provides poor people a chance to give their children a good education.

Burks, who is studying to become a social worker, said without the program her son wouldn't be able to recognize and use the talents that "God gave him."