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Congressional Democrats' War on Science By: Robert Maranto
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, April 14, 2009

President Obama has a lot on his mind, but at least his children, Sasha and Malia, are doing well at their new private school, Sidwell Friends. Unfortunately if congressional Democrats get their way the Obama girls will soon lose their low income classmates.

Last month the Democrats in Congress voted to place a death sentence on the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), the pilot program that allows over 1,700 low-income DC children to attend private schools of their parents choosing. Sasha and Malia Obama have classmates at Sidwell Friends who can attend only because of the OSP.

But the teachers unions made deleting the DC voucher program their number 1 legislative priority, and Democrats in Congress were eager to please a special interest group estimated to have contributed more than $50 million dollars to the Obama campaign alone. So on a series of party-line votes, they passed a budget bill that prohibits the federal government from funding the OSP after the 2009-2010 school year unless a series of nearly impossible legislative hurdles are cleared.

So, what's the problem? The problem for the Democrats is that the OSP clearly boosts the reading skills of the highly disadvantaged inner-city kids enrolled in the program. A Congressionally mandated evaluation of the program, overseen by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences and released last Friday---carefully timed to miss the news cycle---shows that students with an Opportunity Scholarship gained significantly in reading achievement as a result of the program. The evaluation uses the "gold standard" research method of random assignment to ensure that any differences between the students offered a voucher and the control group are due to the program.

Even using very conservative methodological assumptions, the voucher "treatment" group gained 3.7 months of additional reading achievement. Another way to look at these results is that the kids who "lost" the DC voucher lottery and were therefore assigned to the control group for the study were denied the opportunity to improve their reading skills to a substantial degree---even though the program's $7,500 scholarships are less than a third the spending per child in Washington's traditional public schools. (Imagine the impacts if the vouchers were larger, or if the program had more time to work!) Treatment group kids are also significantly less likely to be the victims of robbery or theft in school than are their peers in the control group.

The improvements from school choice are particularly noteworthy since they overwhelm the potentially disruptive impacts of switching from one school to another, and dwarf the miniscule statistical gains associated with pre-school, increased funding, and other policies championed by Congressional Democrats and teachers unions.

If findings of this magnitude applied to adults in cancer treatments, policy-makers who valued science would never cancel the treatment; rather they would immediately apply it to the control group, in order to save lives. But for disadvantaged children, scientific findings just don't matter.

Congressional Democrats not only mandated that no additional low-income minority DC students be allowed to benefit from this effective educational program. They went further by voting to yank the scholarships away from the 1,700 children who have clearly benefited from this opportunity, tossing them out of their private schools.

By voting to kill the DC OSP, the Democrats in Congress have placed themselves in opposition to the educational needs of low-income, minority, inner-city children. If they ignore, deny, or minimize the importance of this rigorous evaluation of the program's effectiveness, they also would be pitting themselves against President Obama, who has repeatedly called for respecting the role of science and data rather than money and lobbyists in making public policy, including education policy.

The Democratic leadership which rules the national government shouldn't go down this troubling path. They should instead follow Democratic Senators Diane Feinstein, Joe Lieberman, and others who have insisted on going with the data rather than following the money. And President Obama should not stand idly by while low-income voucher students who are thriving alongside his daughters are thrown out the Sidwell Friends schoolhouse door. It is time for President Obama to step up and exercise leadership in calling on his fellow Democrats to reverse course and reauthorize the Opportunity Scholarship Program. That would be the change that the President campaigned on and the change we can believe in, a government in which special interests no longer dictate government policy.

It would be a tragedy for the disadvantaged children of our nation's capital if politicians continue to play politics as usual with their education.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair of Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

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