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Should We Be Skeptical About the President’s Decision to Support School Choice in D.C.?

President Obama has begun “evolving“ his positions on various policy issues as polls show him neck and neck with Mitt Romney. His latest about-face restores a popular school voucher program for needy children in Washington, D.C.—after he had yanked its funding.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), the Obama Administration has agreed to restore funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship for another year.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which allows children from low-income homes to escape the underperforming D.C. public schools and attend a private school of their choice, has given scholarships to nearly 5,000 children since 2004. Although legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President last year authorized the program to continue for five years, the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2013 went back on his word and eliminated the program’s funding, giving what was authorized for the scholarships to the public schools instead.

In seeking to end the program, the President sided with the teachers union, which consistently opposes policies like school choice that improve student outcomes.

Yesterday, Boehner and Lieberman announced they had reached an agreement with the Administration to restore the program for at least the next school year.

“Thousands of families have taken advantage of this scholarship program to give their children an opportunity to succeed in life, and there’s strong evidence that it’s both effective and cost-effective,” Boehner said.

The D.C. OSP has been highly successful. According to federally mandated evaluations of the program, student achievement has increased, and graduation rates of voucher students have increased significantly. Graduation rates in D.C. public schools languish (hovering around 55 percent), and the public school system ranks last in the country in terms of academic achievement. Yet, students who used a voucher to attend private school had a 91 percent graduation rate. In addition, 89 percent of OSP graduates have gone on to enroll at a 2- or 4-year college or university.

And its cost effectiveness is clear. At $8,000, the vouchers are a bargain compared to the more than $18,000 spent per child by D.C. public schools.

Even more importantly, the OSP gives freedom of choice to parents and hope to children in low-income families. Parents are able to choose a better education for their children, with the aim of lifting them out of poverty. They want schools that are safe, cultivate a positive attitude about learning, and best fit their children’s abilities and interests. Only school choice can satisfy these diverse preferences and expectations, and parents in the OSP have expressed high levels of satisfaction.

For three years, President Obama fought against this and other school choice programs, and he and Education Secretary Arne Duncan may take up that fight again. But for now, as electoral pressure grew and the popularity of this program expanded, he had little choice but to keep his end of last year’s agreement.

The program’s restoration was welcome news to Virginia Walden Ford, who fought for school choice in Washington, D.C., for more than 10 years. She now lives in Arkansas and advocates for school choice there.

“I am excited and relieved that the Obama Administration has worked with D.C. OSP champions Senator Lieberman and Speaker Boehner to make sure the program is fully implemented,” she said. “This means so much to the families who have been so concerned about the future of their children’s educational journey. It is truly incredible news for all the supporters who have fought over the years to make sure all the District’s children have access to a quality education.”

To hear success stories directly from the children and parents who have benefited from the D.C. OSP, check out “Let Me Rise,” a video produced by The Heritage Foundation.

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