The recent saga of the District of Columbia's federally-funded "Opportunity Scholarship Program" is one of opportunities missed or squandered, mostly by the Obama Administration. That's not meant as an indictment of its overall performance; with very little staff, too little time, and an enormous stimulus bill to implement, Arne Duncan and his team are doing a respectable job of keeping it all together at the Education Department. When it comes to the voucher program, however, they've made some early mistakes. The key question now is whether they will learn from them--and possibly salvage a valuable little program that is accomplishing some of their major objectives.
Their first blunder was underestimating the symbolic importance that both sides of the school choice wars assign to the D.C. program. It's a little bit like Vietnam: on the surface, it's small and strategically insignificant. But both proponents and opponents seem to believe in a sort of domino theory of school choice. If vouchers make it in the nation's capital, goes the thinking, they might spread like kudzu to other locales.
How else to explain the conflagration over an initiative that serves fewer than 2,000 students? Why else would the National Education Association send Democratic members of Congress a thinly veiled threat that they had better kill this program or face the music? How else to explain the heat that certain Congressional Democrats put on Duncan et al. after the Secretary voiced his sensible view that the students currently in the program should be allowed to remain in their schools? It looks so petty and mean-spirited that it's hard even to understand unless these folks truly believe that D.C. is a harbinger of things to come.
The Obama team's second (related) mistake was to suppose that it could triangulate between the position of Democrats on the hill ("kill the program") and voucher supporters ("extend it") and somehow oblige everyone. (As Ruth Marcus wrote this week, the President has yet to pick a real battle with the Hill, but needs to do so soon. She channels Machiavelli: "it's better to be feared than loved.") They seemed surprised that choice opponents on the Hill were strongly displeased by their statements about protecting current students. And then they got rolled over when Congress passed its Omnibus Appropriations Bill (which Obama dutifully signed) without any provision to help even current scholarship recipients.
Now they have tacked left again, trying to appease Congressional appropriators by rescinding scholarship offers to 200 low-income families who thought their children would be attending private schools come fall. I'm not sure whether that placated the Hill, but it sure did enrage the right. Now, on this issue, Team Obama is neither feared nor loved, and rightly so.
But perhaps the biggest mistake--and greatest missed opportunity--came when the program's evaluation results were released a few weeks ago. President Obama and his team had a chance to live up to their rhetoric about following the evidence. Remember what the President said while campaigning: "If there was any argument for vouchers, it was 'Alright, let's see if this experiment works,' and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids. I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn." Well, now the D.C. findings are in, and they are mostly positive, which is unusual for gold-standard studies. So why not "do what works" for kids?
I suspect that he and Duncan and their teams didn't even pause to consider whether they should adjust their position on vouchers (they're busy these days, remember). Instead, they plowed ahead with the spin that "students from low performing schools, the program's target group, continued to show no improvement." Well if that's the standard, Mr. Secretary, let me warn you that about 200 of your Department's programs (in other words, virtually all of them) don't measure up. Do you plan to axe them, too?
Now Messrs. Obama and Duncan find themselves in a Vietnam-style quagmire. They've crushed the hopes and dreams of 200 low-income D.C. families while staking out the otherwise-reasonably-decent position that 1,700 youngsters already in the program should be protected until they graduate. Yet even that outcome is in doubt, as the program's enemies strive to kill it outright. Meanwhile, both are vulnerable to personal attacks, with the President's children in an elite private school and the Secretary admitting that he chose a (public) school outside the District for his daughter because he didn't want to "jeopardize my own children's education."
The time has come for both to learn some key lessons. First: though it might look like a teapot, the D.C. voucher program is capable of causing a major tempest that isn't going to end anytime soon. Second: if you want Congress to cough up funds to keep the program's current students in their schools, it's going to take a fight--an affirmative fight by you in defense of vouchers that work for poor kids! And third: don't fear such a fight, because the facts--not to mention a compelling human narrative--are on your side.