Led by John Ensign and Joe Lieberman, a bipartisan group of 14 Senators today urged Education Secretary Arne Duncan to reverse his decision that has trapped low-income students in underperforming schools. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program allows low-income students to attend private schools, but Secretary Duncan recently announced that new students would not be admitted to the program.
"We're talking about a program that is successful and is helping students most in need," said Ensign. "Secretary Duncan's decision devastated students who want opportunity and want to learn. Parents have lined up for this program, but now they have no alternative except to send their children to failing and unsafe D.C. public schools."
"Secretary Duncan's decision to prevent new scholarships from being awarded for the upcoming school year is especially unfair to the many families that had already been told they would receive scholarships for their children, and are now left with very limited options. The Opportunity Scholarship program is under review by Congress and it is premature to wind it down," said Lieberman.
Forty-five percent of Senators sent their children to private schools, almost four times the rate of the general population. If every Senator who sent their children to private schools voted in support of this program, low-income D.C. children would not have to return to underperforming public schools.
The letter was signed by Senators John Ensign (R-NV), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Susan Collins (R-ME), George Voinovich (R-OH), John Cornyn (R-TX), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Jim DeMint (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Sam Brownback (R-KS).
Included below is the text of the letter.
The Honorable Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202
Dear Secretary Duncan:
We are writing to express our disappointment in your recent decision to prevent new students from taking advantage of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program provides a lifeline to some of D.C.'s neediest families and your actions have effectively ended the program before Congress has had the opportunity to consider reauthorizing it.
We are particularly concerned about the impact your decision will have on families who already have a child participating in the program and have completed the application process in order to enroll an additional child. Low-income families (most making less than $23,000 per year) should not have to face the difficult decision of being able to provide one child with a high quality education while being forced to allow another child to remain trapped in underperforming schools. This is especially true when Congress provided $14 million in funding for the 2009-2010 school year in order to ensure that did not happen. We are also concerned for those parents who believed that they would be receiving a scholarship for their children, but have now been left without options.
Your decision is especially hard to understand in light of a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education's independent research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, detailing positive results from the program. This report indicates that students in the Opportunity Scholarship Program experienced improvements in reading that were equal to more than 3 months of additional schooling, while parents were increasingly satisfied with the quality and safety of their children's schools.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs is preparing to hold hearings on the program and Senator Reid has indicated he would provide floor time for debate on reauthorization of the program. During this process, Congress will review the results of the program, fully debate its merits, and make any necessary modifications to improve the program. The Department of Education should refrain from undertaking any major changes to this program until this process can be completed.
We strongly urge you to reverse your decision and allow funding to be used to allow the maximum number of low-income students trapped in underperforming schools to benefit from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.