You know Washington D.C.'s public schools are troubled when public school teachers are telling parents they should try to get their students into private schools.
"I had teachers from [Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School] tell me, 'If you have a chance to get your children in private schools, do that'," Gary Jones told the Washington Examiner. "And that's exactly what I did."
Jones has two school-aged children. His older child, Sabirah, attends St. Thomas More Catholic Academy on a tuition voucher from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The younger child, Tiffany, was not able to get a voucher because administrators of the program rarely grant two scholarships to the same family. "They're not following the letter of the law. The law states sibling preference."
Jones is fortunate enough to be able to afford St. Thomas More's tuition for Tiffany, more than $6,000 out of pocket for the year.
Jones has no problem with MLK Elementary. Sabirah was always on the honor roll there and graduated as one of the top students in the fifth grade.
The junior high schools, however, presented new challenges. "To be quite honest with you, she would have gotten eaten alive," Jones said. He cited academic and behavioral problems with many students in the public junior high schools his daughters could have attended. "They were not options at all. … It just wasn't happening." Less than 65 percent of the city's public high school students graduate within four years.
In contrast, Jones says many of the city's private schools have a tradition of academic excellence. Jones' wife graduated from St. Thomas More. Over 90 percent of participants in the scholarship program graduate from high school. MLK Elementary had 40 students per class in the fourth and fifth grade, while St. Thomas More has about 12-15 students per class. There is individualized after-school tutoring. Any problems in class lead to a phone call from the teacher. Jones' kids went from having no homework in the public school to a challenging 2-3 hours per night. "It's preparing them for the rigors of high school," Jones says.
The public schools could improve if they didn't have to deal with so much red tape, and if they got the resources they've been promised by the city government, Jones says.
Wednesday, Jones will testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to make the case for extending the program. If left untouched, the program's funding will expire on Oct. 1, 2016. The House passed an extension of the program in late October, with 238 Republicans and two Democrats in support. It was the last bill authored by former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who rarely introduced legislation as speaker but made the scholarship program one of his priorities.
The program is federally funded, but faces opposition from the Washington city council anyway. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., wants to see the program phased out gradually, so that none of the current students would be harmed. "It's not hurting public schools at all," Jones says, noting that the bill in Congress gives equal federal funds to Washington's public, charter and private schools.
Jones is angry with the hypocrites who oppose the opportunity scholarship program but spend tens of thousands of dollars on private school tuition for their own children. Washington Councilmember Jack Evans, for example, sends his child to Gonzaga College High School, where the tuition is almost $21,000 a year. "Gonzaga is good for his kid, but it's not good for mine?" Jones says.
President Obama also supports Holmes Norton's position to phase out the scholarship program, but sends his children to Sidwell Friends School, where tuition and fees run close to $40,000 a year. The president's alma mater, Punahou School in Hawaii, is charging more than $22,000 for annual tuition.
"These are college tuitions that these politicians are paying, "Jones says. "You're limiting my choice, and you're giving me crap about $6,000?"
Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.