Speaker Boehner and School Vouchers — The Personal Is Political

Amid partisan gridlock, a reauthorized scholarship program remains a bright spot.

(photo: Benis Arapovic/Shutterstock.com)

WASHINGTON — This fall, 459 low-income students enrolled at Catholic schools in Washington, D.C., courtesy of a program spearheaded by the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner.

Last January, Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, introduced legislation to restore the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which Democrats eliminated in 2009.

The Scholarship for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR), which authorized scholarships of up to $8,000 a year for elementary-school students and up to $12,000 for high-school students, passed during a midnight vote this April.

With the start of the 2011-2012 academic year, four inner-city parochial schools that comprise the Consortium of Catholic Academies in the Archdiocese of Washington enrolled 309 students, whose tuition scholarships were provided through a continuing resolution signed by President Obama that also banned funding for abortions in the District.

The hard-fought victory was applauded by Washington families eager to participate in the scholarship program and administrators of the Consortium of Catholic Academies — which saw a drop in enrollment after the program was shut down, though Obama agreed to maintain funding for children who had already been accepted into the program and had not graduated.

Amid partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, the passage of the SOAR Act prompted a moment of triumph for Boehner. In 2004, he helped secure the original voucher legislation and then pressed to reauthorize the program after the GOP regained the House.

Boehner deeply admires the urban schools that comprise the Consortium of Catholic Academies; 41% of CCA students live at or below the federal poverty line. He would like to see similar schools available to low-income students across the country.

“It started 10 years ago. Somebody brought me to visit one of the schools. I was the new chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee in Congress,” Boehner recalled during an interview last week.

Since then, he has toured “every consortium school and classroom. You see teachers and administrators who are committed to helping kids get an education, and you see students excited about school. The schools tend to get parents engaged in their child’s education, and that’s a key ingredient,” he added.

Giving Back

A product of Catholic education from elementary school through university, Boehner grew up sharing a crowded home with 11 siblings. His father never went to college and ran a bar, but still managed to send his children to Catholic schools.

“I thought it was time to give something back, and I got more and more involved with the consortium schools,” said Boehner, who still seems impressed by his parents’ legacy.

Last January, the speaker invited a group of consortium students, parents and teachers to President Obama’s State of the Union address. The next day, he held a press conference to kick off his campaign to reauthorize the scholarship program.

“In his State of the Union message last night, President Obama spoke of the vital role education plays in making our nation competitive,” Boehner noted at that January press conference. “There’s only one program in America where the federal government allows parents from lower-income families to choose the schools that are best for their children, and it’s right here in D.C.”

He presented the program — in which students, not schools, receive tuition subsidies — “as a model that I believe can work well in other communities around the nation — it should be expanded, not ended. If we’re serious about bipartisan education reform, then this bipartisan education bill should be the starting point.”

Subsequently, Leslie Alvarez, a student and scholarship recipient at Sacred Heart School, one of the four consortium schools, was invited to testify at a House subcommittee hearing that examined the impact of the D.C. Scholarship program.

While Boehner stepped up the pressure on Capitol Hill, he continued to visit the consortium schools, checking in with teachers and students. According to the principal of Sacred Heart School, Stephanie Margetts, he typically showed up accompanied by his security detail and no entourage.

This week, the speaker will continue his pattern of attending the consortium’s annual gala, which is expected to raise more than $1 million.

To cover the annual shortfall between tuition revenue and the actual costs of educating consortium students, the board of directors of the consortium raises about $2.3 million and the archdiocese provides about $1.8 million.

In recent years, Washington, D.C., has emerged as a flashpoint for education-reform battles. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington views the scholarship program as an ideal solution for families in a school district notorious for its high dropout rate and weak scores.

The Need for Evidence

In 2009, The Washington Post editorial page opposed the closing of the voucher program and criticized Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for failing to go to bat for students eager to escape substandard schools.

“For all the talk about putting children first, it’s clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way,” stated the Post’s editorial, which noted that a recent study showed “some initial good results for students in the [voucher] program.”

In 2008, Cardinal Wuerl also was under fire after he approved a plan to transform seven cash-strapped urban Catholic schools into charter schools.

Center City Public Charter Schools, the nonprofit entity that took over the seven schools, was an offshoot of the Center City Consortium, which was established by the archdiocese in 1995 to help inner-city Catholic schools pool fundraising and administrative costs.

Today, the cardinal still defends his decision as a necessary if painful action. That said, he vows to do his best to keep the four remaining consortium schools open; the charter schools provide the archdiocese with rental income totaling $800,000 that flows to the four consortium schools.

Vincent Burke, the chairman of the board of the Consortium of Catholic Academies and a managing director at the Bank of Georgetown, signed off on the initial decision to retain four “geographically diverse” schools with strong academic reputations. Now he views Boehner’s successful campaign to reauthorize the scholarship program as a source of inspiration for everyone who supports the strong moral and academic environment that defines consortium schools.

“The cardinal went to the Secretary of Education to get help, and Arne Duncan said there was zero political will. This only happened because of the speaker, pure and simple,” said Burke.

The federal program has been approved for at least five years. Advocates note that the legislation was crafted to appeal to public-school administrators, who generally oppose such programs, arguing that they draw funds and strong students away from the public sector. In each academic year, the $20 million in federal funds provided for private-school scholarships is matched by $20 million for both the city’s public system and for its growing contingent of charter schools.

Stephanie Margetts, the principal of Sacred Heart School, said she was thrilled to offer spots to the children of low-income families, including the offspring of recent immigrants who are barely literate in their native Spanish language. In recent years, the median annual income for the families of scholarship recipients is about $28,000.

Margetts reports that several early grades at Sacred Heart School now have waiting lists, a sign that local families are impressed with her school’s growing reputation for providing a strong academic foundation for high school.

Boehner is eager to see Washington’s scholarship program replicated elsewhere. But he also counsels advocates of publicly funded voucher programs to provide solid evidence that no-frills parochial schools do a better job of educating low-income children.

“I just want the scholarship program in Washington, D.C., and others around the country, to demonstrate real progress. I know it is there, and I see it. But if we want to convince policymakers, we need data to back it up. I believe in facts, and the anecdotal data isn’t enough,” he said.

In Washington and in many states, public schools and Catholic schools administer different standardized tests, making it tough to compare the academic achievement of both school populations. Margetts said she was exploring ways to provide that data.

But, for now, at least, the principal is helping the Sacred Heart School community settle into a new academic year, one that looks a bit brighter than it did in September 2010.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.