Saturday, April 4, 2015

Lankford urges Obama to support D.C. vouchers

[Guest post by Patrick B. McGuigan]

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is part of a bipartisan group chiding the Obama Administration for trying to kill a school choice program benefiting children in the nation’s capital.

Sen. James Lankford
Lankford has long supported choice. In an interview with this reporter, he said, “Congress has direct oversight over the District of Columbia. So as a Member of Congress, I can advocate for school choice in the area where I have direct impact.” Lankford, in his first term in the Senate after four highly effective years in the U.S. House, is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management—with jurisdiction over the District of Columbia.

“When it comes to our children,” Lankford believes, “the American people are eager to pursue policies that help kids thrive. Education is about kids, not political parties. School choice allows parents to get kids out of the small number of failing schools.”

A conservative statesman, Sen. Lankford seemed reluctant to assail his Republican friends at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. Even though school choice is popular among Oklahoma voters, the GOP-controlled legislature failed this year to pass Education Savings Account legislation authored by state Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, and state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. “Parents and local elected officials should create and manage education policy,” Lankford said, “not Washington.”

Well, yes. I am a commentator and a journalist, so let me register some reflections and criticisms about the latest Republican failure to defend and advance the stated Republican policy position.

Jolley's Senate Bill 609 would allow students to receive partial value for tax-financed education resources, in support of schooling at a place of parental (or guardian) choice. The idea, as with all school choice programs, is to have resources follow children, rather than institutions or bureaucracies.

After pulling his measure from the 2015 legislative calendar, Jolley said “education savings accounts would enable more Oklahoma parents to make that choice for their child by allowing them to use part of his or her state education funding to pursue the schooling that best suits a student's needs.

“Public schools would actually see an increase in per-pupil revenue as a result of this plan. Other states already offer this option for education, and I am convinced this would enhance our efforts to improve education levels in our state.”

To be sure, Jolley’s bill can be revisited during the 2016 legislative session. Still, the result is notable. For the second year in a row, school choice legislation was pulled from the calendar in a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, joined Lankford in pushing to retain the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In a missive to President Obama, the quartet detailed shared concerns over his decision. Their joint letter read:
We were disappointed to learn your budget proposal cut funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and terminated future funding for this life-changing program.
Public schools in the District of Columbia are some of the worst in the nation. The high school four-year graduation rate in the district is only 59 percent. Only half of the district’s public school children are proficient in reading. This track record is in spite of spending almost $30,000 per pupil.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program provides scholarships for children of low-income households in the district to attend schools that their families otherwise could never possibly afford. Because the enrollment wait list for D.C. Public Charter Schools totals more than 22,000 applicants, disadvantaged Washington students have limited options in the district’s public schools. For many Washington students, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is the only hope for an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.
The average household income for students receiving scholarships under the program is below $21,000—in a city with some of the highest costs of living in the nation. Two-thirds of these children come from families that receive food stamps and/or aid from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Ninety-seven percent of the children who benefit from this program are African American, Hispanic and/or Latino.
Despite the socioeconomic challenges facing these students, 90 percent of students who earn scholarships through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program graduate from high school, and almost all of those students go on to attend college. The program’s success and popularity among Washington families is reflected in the more than 3,600 applications received for the 2014-2015 school year. Simply stated, this program works.
We therefore urge you to support the full, continuous funding of a program that is proven to transform the lives of thousands of Washington children, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
The four senators together reflect the diversity of support for school choice in modern America.

Put one way, the group includes two while males (Lankford and Johnson), a black male (Scott), and a female Democrat (Feinstein).

Put another way, the group includes a Jew (Feinstein), a Southern Baptist (Lankford), a Lutheran (Johnson), and an Evangelical (Scott).

Put still another way, these four represent the future, a bipartisan answer to what many have called the most important civil rights issue of the 21st century—education for minorities, and for us all.

Which side of the argument over school choice will Oklahoma Republicans choose? An inclusive future, or a monopoly-driven past?

[Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of CapitolBeatOK, publisher of The City Sentinel, and a history teacher at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a public charter alternative school in Oklahoma City. On April 30 he will be inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.]

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