“[Education] is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
So wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in declaring the notion of “separate but equal” to be an affront to American values and affirming the fundamental “importance of education to our democratic society” in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education.
58 years later, the most important front in the battle for civil rights remains ensuring that all children have an opportunity to receive a first-rate education, and that none are warehoused in failing schools. If anything, that opportunity is more important than ever, for a quality education is increasingly necessary for success in a highly competitive, knowledge-based economy. As President Obama himself admits, he has had the benefit of attending elite schools throughout his life, and he has insisted that his children do so, as well.
So why is his administration so set against providing a modicum of resources to those families in the District of Columbia who lack the means to make the choices regarding their child’s education — a choice more affluent families regard as a birthright?
In 2003, a Republican Congress, with bipartisan support, sought to provide hope to some of those families by instituting a modest program that permitted a small number of families to send their children to schools that offered them the promise of a strong education. That program, Opportunity Scholars, provided poor families (largely African-American) coupons — in an amount that is barely half of what it would cost to keep those children in the District of Columbia public schools — which could be used to send their children to schools where those families believed their children could receive a quality education.
Although the students in the Opportunity Scholars program attend many schools, the single largest contingent, by far, attend my alma mater — Archbishop Carroll High School. Despite the modest amounts invested in the Opportunity Scholars program, it has been an unqualified success. It has boosted student achievement and provided hope to poor children who otherwise would have faced very bleak futures.
But President Obama has decided yet again to stand with the special interest that has heretofore preserved an educational system that condemns struggling minority families. His 2013 budget request zeros out funding for the highly successful Opportunity Scholars Program, which was revived last year by Speaker John Boehner and countless D.C. families who received scholarships to attend a private school of choice.
When the Senate held a hearing on the Opportunity Scholars program, the administration refused to send a single witness to defend President Obama’s position or attempt to rebut the overwhelming evidence quantifying the program’s successes. Rather than defend the indefensible, and explain why he is condemning these children to a future for which they will be ill-equipped, the president has chosen to be silent.
Today, Carroll High School has more Opportunity Scholars than any other school — over 100 remarkable students. All of them are from poor families, all are minorities, and all have benefitted from an academic environment where learning is valued. As recent articles have pointed out, “[under] federally-mandated evaluations of the program, student achievement has increased, and graduation rates of voucher students have increased significantly. While graduation rates in D.C. Public Schools hover around 55 percent, students who used a voucher to attend private school had a 91 percent graduation rate.”
Rather than stand up to do what is right, the president appears to stand in the schoolhouse doorway as a new generation of underprivileged African-American children have the audacity to hope for a better future for themselves — a future they can only achieve with a good education.
58 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Democrats and the president are standing on the wrong side of history.
Michael Steele served as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a political commentator. He will be providing commentary on all things politics for BET.com each week.
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