5.17.2010Can the DC Opportunity Scholarship story teach us something about the realities of "centralization" and "dependency"?

Ever heard of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program? Due to some valiant efforts on its behalf by its supporters in the US Congress and elsewhere you just might have, but I am pretty sure a great majority of Americans have not. Either way, I can guarantee that thousands of economically disadvantaged students and their families in Washington DC have heard of it because since 2004 the program has allowed these students from poorer backgrounds to attend private schools with federal monies and as a result have experienced dramatically increased success in the classroom.

This past year, burried within a massive omnibus spending bill, a small provision was added that would effectively elimintate this successful scholarship program. Consequently, whether you've heard of this program or not, your senator participated in a vote (one way or the other) recently that (at least for now) has ended this program, and so these same thousands of students attending mostly excellent schools will likely be returned to the same underachieving classrooms they were in prior to 2004. No vote in Congress has ever impacted them as much, so I am quite certain that each one of these young people is aware that this vote was taking place.

In his recent opinion article for the Wall Street Journal, civil rights leader Fr. Ted Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame called the end of this program a major "Setback for Educational Civil Rights." Here are some samplings from his piece:

Much has been written about the crisis in education, and the effective resegregation of our public schools. It's clear who is paying the price. A study a few years ago from Johns Hopkins University highlighted the terrible disparity of the current system: Nearly half of our nation's African-American students, nearly 40% of Latino students, but only 11% of white students attend high schools in which graduation is not the norm.

...Many of the parents using Opportunity Scholarships chose Catholic schools for their children even though they are not Catholic themselves. That's no coincidence. When others abandoned the cities, the Catholic schools remained, and they continue to do heroic work....

...I have devoted my life to equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of skin color. I don't pretend that this one program is the answer to all the injustices in our education system. But it is hard to see why a program that has proved successful shouldn't have the support of our lawmakers. The end of Opportunity Scholarships represents more than the demise of a relatively small federal program. It will help write the end of more than a half-century of quality education at Catholic schools serving some of the most at-risk African-American children in the District.

What's happened with the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program provides a close up look on two critical issues worthy of analysis and thought:

  1. Centralized Systems of Education: What happens when you distance the decision maker from the impact of their decision? Here, we had a senator from Illinois placing a small provision in a large spending bill that would end this program for kids in Washington DC, thousands of miles from his home state. In Catholic schools, the model is typically one of local decision-making -- a system of schools not a school system. Local school commissions working with local principals and pastors. Certainly it's important to have aspects of centrality to assist groups of schools (e.g. a Superintendent). That said, when you centralize to the point that important decisions are being made by those that have never stepped foot inside the school affected, let alone the classrooms, it's not surprising when well-intended decisions are made that actually harm the educational mission of a school. It can be frustratingly arbitrary.

  2. Dependency - The Downside of Government Funding: Many of us that care deeply about the importance of saving the Catholic schools in our inner cities also hope that our governments--local, state, or federal--will be some part of the solution. However, the DC Opportunity Scholarship debacle demonstrates that there's a potential downside to government assistance of our Catholic schools and that downside can be dependency. What happens when the rug gets pulled out from underneath us? I guess we'll see in DC.
A scholarship is an award of financial aid for a student to further education. Scholarships are awarded on various criteria usually reflecting the values and purposes of the donor or founder of the award.

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