Before Congress gets to work on the big issues facing the rest of the country, it should take a few moments to make sure it funds a program that keeps Washington families intact.
School families, that is.
If you talk to some of the 1,200 students who benefit from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, you're sure to hear their school community described as a family.
"It's like home," Tyshiek Ali told me. He's a 17-year-old at Archbishop Carroll High School who might go into computer science, veterinary science or teaching. "I love my teachers, every single teacher. ... It's a family." He says all the students are friendly, even if they don't know each other, and are happy to help others with lunch money when someone's in need.
Both Tyshiek and his little brother, Tahir, a sixth-grader at Washington Jesuit Academy, have been in the DCOSP for their entire academic career. If it weren't for the program, their mother, Carmen, would probably have them in a charter school. "It would not be public," she said. "I tried public [with her oldest son, now 24]. I just felt like they weren't challenged enough."
DCOSP primarily benefits low-income families who can't afford to live in Cleveland Park, Friendship Heights or other posh areas of D.C. that offer the best traditional public schools. The average household income of a family in the program is just $21,434.
From what Amaria Jones tells me, Cornerstone Schools of Washington, D.C. isn't much different than the Archbishop Carroll community. "The people care, the teachers care. ... The school's kind of like a family." Amaria, who loves creative writing and might become an author, is in her second year at Cornerstone. The school has graduated 100 percent of its seniors since its first graduating class in 2013. Almost 90 percent of its students go on to college.
The DCOSP program overall boasts similar numbers: For the 2015-16 school year, 98 percent of 12th-graders graduated, with 86 percent accepted to a college. District of Columbia Public Schools only had a 69 percent graduation rate.
Amaria describes Cornerstone, located in southeast Washington, as a safe haven for its students. "It is family oriented," her mom said. "I have all the parent access I could ever need," including sitting in on a class if she wants.
Tahirra Cooper Mesa wanted something different than what Archbishop Carroll or Cornerstone offered, so she chose Emerson Preparatory School, nestled in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood. Her interests are unique: She wants to go into forensic anthropology. The school's flexibility helps her pursue that passion.
"Our teachers are young, so they understand the interactions we need," she said. One of her teachers is as young as 24. "They relate to us more."
Federal funding for DCOSP expired on Oct. 1, but enough funds were disbursed to cover students for the rest of the current school year. Under unified Republican government, the program will likely get renewed funding. Program administrators clearly expect renewal — its website allows families to apply now for the 2017-18 school year.
As of press time, the latest government funding legislation in the House would make scholarships available in time for the next school year. President Obama opposed standalone legislation that would fund the program, despite Mayor Muriel Bowser's support for the bill, but has signed federal funding bills in the past that included funds for the program.
Maintaining the current level of funding is a good start, but Congress should consider expanding the program in its next session, if not now.
The scholarships are clearly in high demand: More than 2,300 applications were received for the 2015-16 school year, but only 234 were given out. That means for each of the 1,200 or so students in the program now, there are almost twice as many who are left out and disappointed every year. That's partially because families already in the program love it and don't want to leave: Almost 90 percent of the parents are happy with their child's school.
The program will likely be renewed, if not expanded, in the years to come. But Congress needs to have a sense of urgency and make sure there's no disruption. If students have to leave their schools, it would be like evicting a family from their community, or taking a child away from their brothers and sisters.
We wouldn't tolerate the government doing that in other ways, and we shouldn't tolerate it in education.
Jason Russell is the contributors editor for the Washington Examiner.