11/10/06

Random Thoughts: Washington Scholarship Fund

I just got back from a session helping parents apply for the DC voucher program, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program. We were at a housing project in a dangerous part of D.C. I have a lot to say about it, but instead, I'll just post something I wrote early last year.

Yesterday was an extremely stressful day for me: I volunteered for the Washington Scholarship Fund's final recruitment session this school year for the publicly funded scholarship program. As I tell the folks at the organization whenever they need volunteers: Don't count on me being there, but don't be surprised when I show up.

It is always fun, educational and humbling to volunteer for the organization. For three years now, I've been on the organization's Executive Network (previously known as the Young Executive Board). I've previously gone on college tours with students, participated in fund-raisers, gone on Capitol Hill with parents as they talked with Congressmen about the publicly funded voucher program, made phone calls to families to remind them about deadlines and needed documents, helped the organization with recruitment sessions, and gone door-to-door in some of DC's housing projects to tell families about the scholarship program.

I particularly recall going door-to-door through some of the rough neighborhoods. On one outing, I was paired up with Nina Rees, the #2 person at the U.S. Department of Education. At one point, I started walking toward a project that looked pretty dangerous (even to me). She immediately, snapped, "Casey, whereareyougoing?" I answered, "In there." She said, "Okay, but don't lose me."

It was funny because an hour later, we were stuffing fliers at homes on different sides of the street and talking with people we met. I got into a conversation with some folks when I realized that NINA REES WAS MISSING. Okay, so maybe not MISSING, but I couldn't find her immediately. I remember thinking, "Oh, man, if she gets killed or kidnapped, I'm going to be in a LOT of trouble."

I found her up the block, talking away to some folks. It took some time, but she got into it, and over her fear. But I reminded her not to lose me, she would be in a lot of trouble if I got killed or kidnapped...

* * *

At one point I asked someone to snap a photo of me with Nina. It did seem to be pretty funny to have former Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute scholars walking door-to-door through housing projects to tell low-income families about a government program...

* * *

Yesterday, as usual, I bounced around at different tasks. At one point, I was one of the people at the front door to welcome families. At another point, I was the person running to the copiers to make copies of documents. At other times, I was a floater, answering questions that people had about the application. Yep, I was making good use of those two degrees from Harvard!

Then, I somehow allowed myself to get fooled into being at the "final check" table. It is the best and the worst job. The best because the parents would have gotten through the application process and to that table. Along the way, they would have heard about the program, filled out the long application, had their documents checked, and finally arrived at the final checkout table. And by then, they were ready to get out of there, and happy to know they were almost finished!

But it was the worst job BECAUSE it was the final check of the day (an outside agency later will review all of the applications to let the families know whether or not they are eligible). And I let the people coming to me know: It isn't my job to determine whether or not you are eligible, just to collect your documents, put them in the right order, and to let you know which other documents you need to submit.

It was stressful because I know how important the whole process is to the families applying. In the years I've been volunteering with the organization I have heard many stories. Yesterday, some of them told me stories that I've heard so many times before. One woman, a grandmother, is raising her grandchildren. Her son is in jail. She doesn't want her grandkids to end up in the same situation so she wants to get them out of the negative environment they are currently living. Now, I realize that some critics of vouchers call this "creaming," in which the best kids leave lousy public schools to attend private school. Of course, it is so much easier to denounce creaming when you aren't actually dealing with people trying to take advantage of opportunities.

There was the mother who fears for her child's safety at her current school. The middle school she is now attending is bad, and she knows that the high school is even worse. (She's right.) I was there helping out the Washington Scholarship Fund, so I didn't say what I was really thinking: You'd be better off keeping your child at home. I understand the thought behind the "stay at school" campaigns, but in my case I ask: which school? A school with metal detectors? Why would I encourage someone to stay there?

But, instead, I took a few minutes to talk to her about charter school options in the District in case she didn't win the scholarship. I mentioned to her the public school choice program (called "out of boundary") but she waved that off, saying that she was tired of waiting.

Men at these recruitment events are the exception to the rule. Most of the families seeking scholarships are women who head their households. One unmarried father I talked to is raising his daughter. He was skeptical that his daughter would be able to get a scholarship, but he wanted to go through the process anyway. He may not be eligible because his job in education may put him slightly above the income threshold. I'm going to keep tabs on him, visit his school.

And I talked with many others who are desperately trying to find better education options for their children. Those parents weren't asking for a handout. Rather, the money currently being spent on their children can be used at the school of their choice. I mentioned in passing to one parent that I work with the organization that managed the process to help get the voucher program approved. Suddenly, I was a star. All of the parents at the check out table were thanking me for giving them the opportunity to get their children in a better school. I wanted to say more, that I had testified before Congress, that I had done many more things to get the word out, but I just left it at that. Somehow, in talking to the people who would directly benefit, I didn't feel comfortable bragging or highlighting myself. I started to backtrack, making sure they knew that many others had helped and had played much bigger roles.

For example, there is one woman who needs a cane to get around. She is rather frail, probably in her 70s. Last year she went to a JAIL in DC to recruit families for the scholarship program. I wasn't there that day, but heard from someone else there that the many ladies waiting to get into the jail to see their men were eager to sign up. I don't know the exact story behind it, but one inmate "temporarily" got away from officers to make sure his child was signed up for the voucher program.

It was stressful talking to these parents, hearing their stories, knowing how desperate they are to get their children out of the situations they are in now. I'm on the WSF board, I volunteer, and every time I leave one of those sessions I feel drained. When I hear people denounce the program, I always like to check from where the person is talking. It is never in the room or at any Washington Scholarship Fund events. That's because the parents would probably rip them up. It is so much easier to denounce when you aren't involved or have an ideological or political axe to grind.

At a meeting two years ago, I mentioned to a parent that DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was opposed to the voucher program being created. After expressing her admiration for Del. Norton, the parent then went off, saying that "Eleanor" doesn't know anything about education or her child.

Some of the parents who feel that this is the last chance to get their children into a quality school get really emotional about the program. I was present last year during the publicly funded lottery--a cold process with a lot of lawyers and other witnesses present. Then I was there when some of the parents were notified that they had received scholarships. So many shouts of hallelujah! and praise the lord! were coming through the phone lines. Then there are the sad calls to parents to let them know that they had not received a scholarship. So many are skeptical before, during, and after the process. When they don't receive a scholarship, it confirms their worst fears. But the ones who win scholarships? Hallelujah!

The Washington Scholarship Fund runs a privately funded program, in addition to the public program. I recall the first meeting I attended, a picnic with parents. A Congressman came by to award a scholarship. I recall that when a woman's name was called that she started dancing and screaming. I went over to her a few minutes later and she was crying. She said and cried, This is the first time I've EVER won anything.

For me, a guy then working at a think tank, it was truly a moving scene. It was one of those scenes that convinced me that it wasn't enough to just talk about change. I had to be actively involved in making it happen. There were, of course, other forks in the road that got me to leave a rather secure job at a think tank at which I was starting to establish myself nationally. At a panel discussion at which I was the featured speaker, I talked about being at the Martin Luther King, Jr., library, and having a young girl, I think she said she was six years old, eagerly spelling different words for anyone who would listen. I was looking at her and thinking--if she doesn't have quality schools, she may be pregnant in a decade.

The emotion in this movement among the parents, the volunteers, and Washington Scholarship Fund employees may explain why the Washington Scholarship Fund felt it necessary to respond to an attack by a group called People For The American Way. They may have known that it was better not to respond, but perhaps they couldn't stop themselves. If they didn't respond immediately, who else would speak for the parents just looking for an better schools for their children?

I hesitate to call what PFAW has done a "report." Sorting through the flimsy arguments, the cut-and-pasted excerpts from e-mails, and the blurring of fact, fiction, gossip, and opinion throughout the "report" issued by People for the American Way on the DC voucher program, there is one clear question unanswered: Who are the victims?

In January 2004, Congress approved unprecedented legislation, with $26 million set aside for public and charter schools in the nation’s capital, and another $14 million establishing a voucher program for low-income students. While there was plenty of rancor on both sides during discussions, there was also a lot of bi-partisanship on the issue. Democrats who had never supported vouchers voted for them; Republicans who have been skeptical of increased funding for DC public schools voted in favor; and both public school and voucher supporters supported charter schools also receiving additional funds.

Fast forward to a year later. More than 1,000 low-income kids previously in public schools are using vouchers to attend nonpublic schools. Public and charter schools are both using that additional $26 million they split to attempt to give their students a better education. Evaluators are busy collecting data to study the effectiveness of the program. In other words: instead of continuing to talk about making changes, leaders and educators at both the city and national level have created new opportunities for more than 1,000 low-income families in the District.

But as Winston Churchill once said, a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. While many of us are fast-forwarding to the future to learn how and whether this program can create positive benefits for children in the District, some want to turn back the clock. The report issued by PFAW is one such attempt.

While it is tempting to critique the findings of the PFAW report, instead, I’ll invite them to come out of the cave. The cave, as in Plato’s allegory, has prisoners sitting in a cave watching images on a wall in front of them. Unable to grasp that the shadows are just a show, they remain in the cave, failing to capitalize on possibilities beyond the cave.

The cave dwellers are those school choice opponents who refuse to recognize that, in the words of the National Working Choice Commission on Choice in K-12 Education housed at the Brookings Institution: “Choice is here to stay.”

Researchers will continue to debate just what that means, how we will know how choice improves the quality of education, about which methodology should be used to determine all of that. Still, there is a growing consensus among researchers who have conducted extensive evaluations that school choice programs currently implemented have yielded a number of academic and financial benefits for communities, schools, and students. While some educators and politicians are redefining what a “public” education means, PFAW insists on remaining in the cave, looking at the pretty images of what public schools would be like if only the rest of us would stop looking up at the sunlight outside the cave.

Time and again, PFAW has made its opposition to vouchers clear. Its latest report, a gossipy screed rather than a thoughtful presentation of how the one-year old program could be improved, still has three instructive points for those of us attempting to increase educational choice for families without it.

One: Whenever we are dealing with public policy, we must distinguish between concerns and objections raised by both friends and critics. In many cases, concerns are just that—concerns. There are some critics of the voucher program who raised legitimate concerns while the legislation was pending before Congress. Some of these concerns were implemented as both sides sought to find a way to make the program work for DC children.

But raising a concern is different from raising an objection. An objection means: the children (or someone else) will be harmed, this should never be tried. Those who do take the time to read through the PFAW report should be sure to observe that concerns about how the program is being implemented are cited as objections justifying that it be shut down.

Two: In considering concerns and objections raised, it is important to figure out which ones are disingenuous talking points and which ones can or should actually be implemented. For example, PFAW complains that only a small percentage of the kids given priority (low-income kids in schools deemed to be in Need of Improvement) applied for the program. Does that mean that PFAW would support giving a voucher to all children in In Need of Improvement Schools? Of course not. The organization is just trying to make a point about a program that it believes should not exist.

Instead of shutting down the program, as PFAW attempted in (Milwaukee and Cleveland), one answer is to join the rest of us hitting the streets to inform parents about their options. In short, as former president Theodore Roosevelt said: "...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done."

We must recognize that some who are talking about the DC voucher program are more interested in being obstructionists than in making the program work for DC children. Being a talker means not having to deal with complexities and challenges in implementing a brand new program for people previously left behind.

Three: There is a Korean adage: Who can spit in the face of a man who is smiling? Instead of engaging in a mud-slinging contest with people who love to sling mud, we should invite PFAW to help with the outreach (that is, if they are truly concerned about low-income children in the worst schools applying for the voucher program). Instead of staring at shadows on the wall, those who are truly concerned can get involved by helping families apply for the program.

We can “do school choice right” in the nation’s capital. But it will take people being willing to take seriously the idea that the schools are for the children and the families, not that the children and families are for the schools. That will involve working together to find ways to give children as many opportunities as possible to find a way to bring quality educational options for DC children.

There are no victims of this program. Taxpayers are better off because they are spending less money for a similar or better quality of education. The families are better off because they have more choices to find an education that works for their child. The schools are better off, or they wouldn't get into the process.

Best of all, the families involved see opportunities rather than obstacles.


Families at a Washington Scholarship Fund orientation meeting, April 2004


Families at a Washington Scholarship Fund school fair, June 2004

Linked by Mark Lerner, DC Education Blog, A Constrained Vision, Joanne Jacobs, Carnival of Education at Education Wonks, Quid nomen illius?, Parent Pundit, Hispanic Pundit, Economics With A Face, Don Singletonclick to