WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., renewed their drive Wednesday to pass legislation in the 112th Congress that would provide low income District of Columbia students with scholarships to attend private schools. Their strategy includes continuing support for new funds to improve the city’s public and charter schools.

At a hearing on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), the Senators argued that that the program has a proven record of academic success and offers a lifeline to poor students who otherwise might be lost in a notoriously underperforming D.C. public school system.

“In America it should not be a privilege for our children to get a first rate education. It should be a right,” Lieberman said. “Without a quality education, there is no equal opportunity.   Rigorous evaluations have shown that the OSP program is working and helping disadvantaged students.

“We also know parents want more choices than they have. Those who can afford to send their children to private schools do so.  They do so as good parents who care deeply about their children’s future.  This is a program that gives that same choice and opportunity to lower income parents who want the best for their children too.  This legislation would fulfill the fundamental civil rights of children in D.C. to get the best educations they can. There is no down side.” 

Collins said: “The value of educational choice provided by D.C. Opportunity Scholarships is clear. For many students, this voucher program is their first and only opportunity to receive a high-quality education. 

“Chairman Lieberman and I have witnessed the success of this program first-hand.  Parents have testified before our committee that they are more satisfied with their child’s education.  Independent findings from studies conducted for the U.S. Department of Education by the University of Arkansas confirm that students who participate in the school choice program have a higher graduation rate.

“Clearly, this program fills a need.  Since its inception in 2004, more than 8,400 students have applied for scholarships.  It would be a great disservice to these students if Congress did not reauthorize this program and allow more students the opportunity to reach their fullest potential.”

In 2003, Congress worked closely with D.C. government officials to create the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program because of the problems plaguing the D.C. public schools. OSP was one prong of a three-pronged approach that invested in and reformed the traditional public schools and public charter schools over the long term, but provided immediate choices for some students to attend private schools.  For the last two years, Congress and the Administration have prevented new kids from enrolling in the OSP, restricting it to students already enrolled.

Yet, the Institute of Education Sciences reported last year that graduation rates increased by 21 percent for students who used Opportunity Scholarships. And there is broad public support for the program. A new poll shows that 74 percent of D.C. respondents believe the OSP program should continue.

D.C. public schools also benefit financially from the three-pronged approach. A recent GAO report found that between 2004 and 2009, Congress appropriated about $190 million directly to the D.C. public school system to improve D.C. public and charter schools.  In 2010, Congress appropriated an additional $62.2 million for D.C. public and charter schools – more than D.C. public schools received from the major federal education program delivering grants to states. 

Lieberman and Collins introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, S. 206, in January with Senators Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., John Ensign, R-Nev., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Witnesses at the hearing included D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray; D.C. City Council Chairman Kwame Brown; Kevin Chavous, Chairman, Board of Directors Black Alliance for Educational Options; Executive Director D.C. Parents for School Choice Virginia Walden Ford; and Patrick Wolf, professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice, at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform.