Obama Should Look to the Boehner Model for Improving Education

The public-private partnership produces results that should be the envy of the government-run education system

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High school students sit in a classroom while a teacher lectures.
High school students sit in a classroom while a teacher lectures.

In Washington there are two competing visions of what constitutes good education policy. One, held by some in the Obama administration and the entrenched education establishment, is system-based, with its emphasis placed on adults and support for the status quo, rather than the students. The other, which has been embraced by education reformers in both parties, focuses on students and parents in the quest to provide a quality learning experience that will prepare people to compete for jobs in the global marketplace.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the ongoing battle over the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program, a federal program that provides funding to allow a small number of Washington, D.C. parents—participating families have an average income of less than $24,000 per year—to send their children to many high-caliber schools—public, private, or parochial.

In the eight years since the program began, more than 10,000 D.C. families have tried to get their children a scholarship—with demand far exceeding supply. More than 92 percent of participating students, say those who have looked at the data, would otherwise be in a school in need of improvement.  And no wonder: The D.C. public schools are considered by many to be among the worst in the nation, not to mention more expensive than most on a per pupil basis.

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The program has been a great success. The Institute of Education Sciences says that 91 percent of students who used their opportunity scholarships graduated high school—21 percent higher than those who applied but were not awarded a scholarship.  In fact, said the institute, the D.C. program had the second highest achievement impact of any it studied so far.

With results like that you would think that the president and his allies would be engaged in a full-throated embrace of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and actively seeking ways to replicate it in other cities. And you'd be wrong. Almost from the first, the Obama administration tried to kill the program, zeroing out the funding and leaving hundreds of poor families in the lurch.

That the scholarship program continues is the result of the hard work and dedication of Republican House Speaker John Boehner who, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (and former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams) and other members of Congress, have kept the pressure on the Obama administration to keep it going. Thanks to their efforts, the scholarships for 900 D.C. students were renewed while 1,558 new applications were processed, resulting in a total enrollment of 1,615 students the 2011-2012 school year.

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The combined efforts of Boehner and Lieberman, however, go beyond making sure federal funding exists. Every September Boehner and Lieberman lend their names to a charitable fundraising dinner to benefit the Consortium of Catholic Academies. The consortium is compromised of four inner-city elementary schools, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, located in some of the most underserved neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. The Consortium of Catholic Academies student demographics mirror those of their public school peers: Ninety-nine percent are minority; 66 percent are non-Catholic; 51 percent are being raised in single-parent/guardian families; and 41 percent live at or below the federal poverty line. 

Their successes are astounding. In May 2012, 100 percent of Consortium of Catholic Academies eighth graders graduated on time; 89 percent of students were accepted into prominent Catholic, private, or magnet high schools in the D.C. area—including Georgetown Prep, Gonzaga, and Georgetown Visitation. The schools have before and after school programs to accommodate the needs of working families and the student demographics mirror those of public school students in the same neighborhoods: predominantly African-American and Hispanic, non-Catholic with a majority living in single parent homes at or near the poverty line. 

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Over the years, some of Washington's biggest power brokers have joined celebrities like Bill Cosby, Don King, the late Tim Russert, and former First Lady Laura Bush in championing these schools. Tim's son, NBC correspondent Luke Russert is the permanent host. All together, said a source familiar with the project, the Boehner-Lieberman-Williams dinner has raked in nearly $6 million, all of which goes to help provide hope for a better future by making available to the most deserving and underserved parents and children in the district scholarships for needy D.C. students.

The Boehner model, which constitutes a true public-private partnership, produces results that should be the envy of the government-run education system—which may be the reason why some are so committed to making it harder for such scholarship programs to operate. They show up the competition too much.

  • Read Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal: To Improve Schools, We Should Listen to Students
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