Piles of t-shirts that say "Put Kids First"
Organizers of the rally handed out t-shirts for all participants to wear. Photo by Reginald Black

In these perilous economic times nothing is safe from the crunching.  

The first week of May, I observed a rally at Freedom Plaza in support of a program that has drawn strong support from participating District families.  

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, which allows low-income families to send their children to private schools, is slated to lose funding next year. Federal budget legislation would eliminate the program; action by Congress and the D.C. Council could restore it.  

The sad reality is that without a good education one can find oneself sleeping in a park or in the neighborhood hallway. The District is in a fierce dispute about how to improve its troubled public schools, because people of every opinion recognize this reality.  

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is one proposed solution for improving things. In 2008-2009 the program helped 1,715 District students attend 49 nonpublic schools, with scholarships of up to $7,500.  

The program started in 2003 when Congress passed the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act. The law mandated an independent rigorous evaluation of what is now called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship (OSP).  

Studies do not show evidence of a significant change in test scores between those using the scholarship and those that do not. But the program has a positive impact on parent satisfaction and their perception of school safety.  

Hosting the rally was Kevin Chavous, former member of the D.C. Council and the author of “Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education.” He referred to the already seated leaders as a pipeline to the good Lord.  

I was blown away as the St. Francis Xavier student choir sang. It was cute to watch children of all ages and grades come together for one cause, to see each other next year.  

Joining in support were recording artists Genuine Sole and Mya. Genuine told the crowd “I do not come to you as Genuine, but as a husband and father.” Mya, who said she is still teaching herself, also runs a youth group.  

Next was Dr. Ben Chavis, who started the chant “Put our children first!” He also called out District leaders in the Wilson Building across the street by saying that instead of cutting funding, we should be increasing funding. Former Mayor Anthony Williams also briefly addressed the crowd, saying “I would not be here today if loving parents didn’t adopt me into their loving home.”  

There were many schools in attendance, and the roll was called of all in attendance. The children had made hand-written posters and the parents came in droves. Some spoke on how the program has helped their children. Two students in the program gave their testimonies of success.  

Several current Council members showed up as well. First, Council member Marion Barry, who exclaimed, “Let my people go.” He assured the crowd that he is with them when it comes to education. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. also showed his support.  

After more chants and expressions of support, a huge crowd of parents and students marched over to the Wilson Building. They carried in hand 7,000 signatures to a petition against cutting the Opportunity Scholarship program.  

With the final decisions on the District’s budget coming soon, one can only wonder where the programs that help the impoverished are going to be in the coming year. And whatever decisions are made about public funding for education, the parents who favor this school-choice program have made their voices heard.