House Committee on Education and Labor
U.S. House of Representatives

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon
Ranking Member

Fiscally responsible reforms for students, workers and retirees.



Dear Colleague

June 11, 2008

“Hopefully Congress will focus on the kids, not the politics…”
Wall Street Journal Decries Efforts to Strip Low-Income Children in the Nation’s Capital of Educational Opportunities

Dear Colleague:

As the FY 2009 appropriations process gets underway, the lives of thousands of disadvantaged children right here in the nation’s capital are at a crossroads. Congress has a choice to make: Will we continue to offer a lifeline to the children who would otherwise be trapped in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, or will we cave to the wishes of special interest groups who put their own agenda ahead of what’s best for low-income children?

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was created in 2004 with strong bipartisan backing.  The program – whose funds are allocated over and above the District’s education budget, ensuring funds are not drained from public school programs – provides $7,500 scholarships to low-income children enrolled in underperforming schools to allow them to attend the private school of their choice.  Although experts agree that it will take time for potentially significant achievement gains to be demonstrated, the program has proven immensely popular with D.C. children and families.  Parents of scholarship recipients have reported high satisfaction levels, and demand for the scholarships continually outpaces the supply.

Yet despite all that, a campaign is underway among a small fringe of education reform opponents to shut down this bipartisan program and tear away the promise of educational opportunity in the nation’s capital.  And stunningly, media accounts indicate that this effort is gaining traction.  We encourage you to read the attached editorial from today’s Wall Street Journal, which spells out in stark terms exactly what’s at stake.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has always been part of a broader package of reforms to expand educational opportunity in the District.  For instance, the President’s FY 2009 budget includes a total of $74 million to bolster education in the District.  Funds would go to the public school system for initiatives like expanding teacher pay, to programs that help replicate high-performing charter schools, and to the hugely popular D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  As D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty recently stated in a letter to Congress, this education package “will spur improved instruction and services, directly benefiting students in the classroom.”

To ensure children in the nation’s capital are given the educational opportunities they deserve, we must maintain strong support for the innovative D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in the coming fiscal year and beyond.



John Boehner (R-OH)
Republican Leader


Roy Blunt (R-MO)
Republican Whip


Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA)
Senior Republican Member
Education and Labor Committee


Tom Davis (R-VA)
Senior Republican Member
Oversight and Government Reform Committee


Pete Hoekstra (R-MI)
Education and Labor Committee    


Rob Bishop (R-UT)
Education and Labor Committee

Wall Street Journal
Putting Children Last

June 11, 2008; Page A22

Democrats in Congress have finally found a federal program they want to eliminate. And wouldn't you know, it's one that actually works and helps thousands of poor children.

We're speaking of the four-year-old Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides vouchers to about 2,000 low-income children so they can attend religious or other private schools. The budget for the experimental program is $18 million, or about what the U.S. Department of Education spends every hour and a half.

This fight has nothing to do with saving money. But it has a lot to do with election-year politics. Kevin Chavis, the former D.C. City Council member who sits on the oversight board of the scholarship program, says, “If we were going to do what was best for the kids, then continuing it is a no-brainer. Those kids are thriving.” More than 90% of the families express high satisfaction with the program, according to researchers at Georgetown University.

Many of the parents we interviewed describe the vouchers as a “Godsend” or a “lifeline” for their sons and daughters. “Most of the politicians have choices on where to send their kids to school,” says William Rush, Jr., who has two boys in the program. “Why do they want to take our choices away?”

Good question. These are families in heavily Democratic neighborhoods. More than 80% of the recipients are black and most of the rest Hispanic. Their average income is about $23,000 a year. But the teachers unions have put out the word to Congress that they want all vouchers for private schools that compete with their monopoly system shut down.

This explains why that self-styled champion of children's causes, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Congressional delegate from the District of Columbia, is leading the charge to kill the program. Ms. Norton contends that vouchers undermine support and funding for public schools. But the $18 million allocated to the program does not come out of the District school budget; Congress appropriates extra money for the vouchers.

The $7,500 voucher is a bargain for taxpayers because it costs the public schools about 50% more, or $13,000 a year, to educate a child in the public schools. And we use the word “educate” advisedly because D.C. schools are among the worst in the nation. In 2007, D.C. public schools ranked last in math scores and second-to-last in reading scores for all urban public school systems on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Opponents claim there is no evidence that the D.C. scholarship program is raising academic achievement. The only study so far, funded by the federal Department of Education, found positive but “not statistically significant” improvements in reading and math scores after the first year. But education experts agree it takes a few years for results to start showing up. In other places that have vouchers, such as Milwaukee and Florida, test scores show notable improvement. A new study on charter schools in Los Angeles County finds big academic gains when families have expanded choices for educating their kids.

If the D.C. program continues for another few years, we will be able to learn more about the impact of vouchers on educational outcomes. The reason unions want to shut the program down immediately isn't because they're afraid it will fail. They're afraid it will succeed, and show that there is a genuine alternative to the national scandal that are most inner-city public schools. That's why former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and current Mayor Adrian Fenty, both Democrats, support the program.

“Hopefully,” says Mr. Chavis, “Congress will focus on the kids, not the politics here.” Barack Obama might call that the audacity of hope, if he finally showed the nerve to break with the unions on at least one issue and support these poor D.C. students.