Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cincinnatus on Connecticut Avenue: DC Opportunity Scholarships a Win for Our Children.

by Peter Brusoe

I count myself lucky to have had a wonderful educational experience. I went to the best elementary school in the country, William H. Barkley on De Stafno street in Amsterdam, NY. The school was amazing because it focused on excellent teaching, nurturing students, and strong communitarian values that stressed service, compassion and character. Not a day goes by that I don't think of something amazing I learned from one of my teachers like Mrs. Yurkawecz, Mrs. Hoyer, Mrs. MacDougal, Mr. and Mrs. Blance -- the list could go on. I count myself truly blessed to have been able to attend such a great public school. If every child in the country had a Barkley experience, we would be beating China, Europe and every other nation in the world in academic performance.

When it came time to go to middle school, my family and I opted out of the public schools and into my parish's school, St. Mary's Institute of Amsterdam. I loved my St. Mary's Institute experience. I made lifelong friends and had exceptional teachers who continued the education I began in the public schools, and then the switch to St. Mary's reinforced the values that I learned at Barkley.

I remember a lunchtime conversation at St. Mary's in which a classmate asked me, "Which did you like better, public or private?" Perhaps in a sign of my future study of politics, I answered, "both." Fifteen years later I still think the answer is "both." The choices I made with my parents were focused on what was right for me at the time. Barkley was great for me. St. Mary's was great for me. My parents are the hardest working people I know, and they sacrificed so I could attend St. Mary's Institute; I should thank them every day for having done that.

However, not every child in the country can attend a school as amazing as Barkley and not every child has the chance to make a choice between public and private schools. Tuition at schools near my apartment building costs more than my bachelor's degree ($30,000, $32,600 and $34,000), while the lowest cost private school in DC is in the $10,000 range. In comparison, in zip code 20020 the median household income is $24,905.

Worse, less than 20 percent of the students attending the local high school can pass the basic reading and math tests.

There are several different explanations for why this might be the case. Some may blame the students. Some may blame the school. Some may blame the parents. The truth is that it is probably some combination of all three. Let us assume, however, that the problem is with the school. If a student wanted to opt out of the public schools, what choices do they have?

They could attempt to put in for a lottery to attend another school. They could be one of the 400 students to attend Banneker High School, the school system's magnet for high achievers, which has almost 100 percent passing, or Wilson High School, the neighborhood school for Ward 3 residents, which has 60 - 70 percent passing.

However, my understanding of the lottery is that the best and most desirable public schools are often the hardest to get into. If parents cannot get their child into a public school that would best serve the needs of the student, what choice does the family of median household income in 20020 have? They could do what many of my neighbors have done and leave Washington, DC for Montgomery County. They could lie to the schools about residency, like one mother in Ohio. Or they can pay half of their median house hold income to send their child to Archbishop Carroll High School, and hope that the Archdiocese would provide a scholarship to help cover the cost. (Last year over two million dollars from the Archbishop's appeal went to education.) However, attending a private school in the Woodley Park neighborhood would cost $200 over the total median household income.

One of our neighbors, addressing why he and his wife didn't send their two daughters to DCPS, put the problem succinctly:
"The broader problem is that for a mom or dad who are working hard and who don't have a bunch of connections, don't have a lot of choice in where they live, they should be getting the same quality education for their kids as anybody else."
Thankfully, Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Lieberman have proposed a solution, the return of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program provides vouchers for students in DC Public Schools to be able to make the choice between attending private or public schools. No longer would a child be discriminated against based on their parents' income.

During the Ward III City Council Debate sponsored by the WPCA, the question about supporting this program was asked. David Hedgepeth, the Republican candidate for Ward III, said, "Yes, we need this, with local dollars." Councilmember Mary Cheh said "Yes, but only with federal dollars." Whatever the source of funding, it will be a good day when parents and children have a choice. Let's hope that our city council and mayor will work with Congress to give our students the educational opportunities they deserve.


Salute to a Civil Servant

This week's salute goes to Carly J. Skidmore. Carly is the Mayor's outreach specialist for Ward 4. In this role she coordinates with the city bureaucracy and various neighborhood groups to make sure that they are tuned in to the goings-on of government. During the past three winter storms Carly has been working non-stop making sure that the city is plowing and clearing streets and reaching out to the citizens. While the rest of us just want to spend the night inside curled up with a good book, she's out in the ward helping her fellow Washingtonians. Keep up the great work, Carly! If you ever get bored in Ward 4, feel free to come over to Ward 3 and help!


Peter W. Brusoe is a PhD Candidate in the Political Science and adjunct lecturer at American University. Brusoe has a Masters in political science from the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy and a Bachelors in History and Political Science from the University at Albany. In his free time, Peter volunteers with the Woodley Park Community Association, plays tuba for the American University Pep Band, and enjoys watching Great Dane Basketball.

Peter welcomes your comments below. If you have a question or prefer a more immediate response, please email him at peter(dot)brusoe(at)american(dot)edu.

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