Kudos to the eight D.C. Council members (Grosso, Allen, May, Silverman, Bonds, Alexander, Nadeau and Evans) who are standing up to Congress asking them to end what has been called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. A raspberry to the two Democrats, Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) who are supporting the program and overriding local government in the District of Columbia.
I understand when Republicans like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) do, but it’s unconscionable for Democrats who claim they believe in the District’s right to govern itself. If Booker and Feinstein want children in their own states to have this opportunity they should introduce such a bill but should stop trying to play God with the people of the District, using us as a petri dish for programs they can’t get support for at home.
The money allocated for this program pays for children to go to religious schools that openly discriminate against gay and lesbian children, teachers and parents. In addition there is no real academic gain shown for the children who use these scholarships.
While I think the mayor is doing a great job it’s time to speak up on this issue as well. The president has tried to end this program, which interferes in home rule and he should have the support of every elected official in the District. The statement by Michael Czin, the mayor’s spokesperson as reported in the Washington Post, “We support federal funding that benefits District residents” is not acceptable. Would the mayor accept other federal money going to programs or entities discriminating against a large portion of residents in the District?
We cannot demand budget and legislative self-determination and then be willing to close our eyes to such blatant acts of overreaching and sidestepping this principle. We can’t have it both ways. This private voucher program — call it any other fancy name you like — has allowed students to attend schools that “offer widely disparate experiences,” according to the Washington Post, “with no oversight and no accountability.”
Over the past eight years the schools in D.C. have definitely improved and we have the most vibrant public charter school opportunities for children anywhere in the nation. Currently D.C. children and their parents have the widest array of options on schools in the nation. Any public money available should be spent on improving education for all children in those schools and not just the few who opt out.
Our nation is built on the concept of a free public education for all children. There can be no question we should be spending more money to improve those opportunities. Education Reform in the District has begun to show fairly dramatic improvements in how we educate our children and we have raised the standards to which we hold students, teachers and administrators. The District has adopted the Common Core curriculum and is raising the bar for all students. Graduation rates are slowly beginning to improve and every dollar we have needs to go into those public schools to ensure continued progress.
Also important is putting money into programs to ensure our children are prepared to learn. The Clinton Foundation initiative “Too Small to Fail” is one that should be funded across the nation and could have a significant impact on how District children do in school. We know the first five years of a child’s life are a huge determinant as to how much of their God-given potential they will reach. Science tells us our brains grow the most in the first years of our life and giving parents and communities the tools and knowledge to help their child from birth to three, before they start what should be fully funded pre-K programs, is crucial to their eventual success. That is where any additional federal money could be spent and these programs are ones our Council and mayor should support and fund with taxpayer money — not some private voucher program that simply takes money that could be used for all public school programs.
As a 37-year resident of the District of Columbia who has taken an active role in civic life, I want to see my mayor and Council stand together on issues of principle. I want them to take the kind of stands those eight Council members have when writing to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to end private school vouchers.
We need to stand together and fight back when Congress passes legislation undermining home rule.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist.