03/22/2011 10:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Opportunity Scholarships in D.C. Give Lawmakers Chance to Put Actions to Words

Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper on a national conference call in conjunction with President Obama's push to replace the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act. They spoke of the education reform movement, the role of the federal government in supporting the states as they make education policy, and how each one of the nation's children deserves a quality education.

"There's nothing more at war with who we are as Coloradoans and Americans than the image of fourth grade children doing first grade math," Bennet said.

Duncan too spoke of his commitment to reform, saying that he wants to "challenge the status quo when things aren't working."

The reality is that the most transformational education policy arises at the state level, but even as federal employees, the two former city school superintendents still have a chance to put action to their sweeping rhetoric by supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP).

Authorized by Congress in 2004 to provide low-income kids in the nation's capital scholarships to attend eligible schools of their parents' choosing, the OSP is the practical application of the educational platitudes we hear often from our elected officials. The program has improved reading scores for students involved, raised graduation rates for program participants to 91 percent, and has provided kids with a secure environment in which they can be safe and their parents can have peace of mind. And in addition to expanding the OSP, the current legislation to reauthorize the program also provides additional funds to D.C. Public schools and the city's charter schools.

In short, the bill to reauthorize the program -- aptly called the Scholarships for Opportunities and Results (SOAR) Act -- is the very challenge to the status quo to which our nation's foremost voice on education policy said he was committed, and the OSP's significant record of improvement -- identified in studies commissioned by the Department of Education's Institute of Education Studies, no less -- are just the very kinds of gains Bennet said were consistent with American ideals. These gains come at the expense of no one, yet when the OSP was up for reauthorization two years ago, Bennet and his colleagues opted to phase out the program, while Duncan revoked 216 scholarships and publicly endorsed prohibiting new students from joining.

At issue is a program that can help kids from some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in D.C. while improving the resources available to the rest of the city's schools, too. Those who prefer that actual District residents to have a say in the matter -- as opposed to members of Congress who admittedly aren't accountable to D.C.'s voting-rights-strapped citizens -- need only look to the 74 percent of District residents who support reauthorizing the program. Consultation with local leaders, the overwhelming majority of whom support the OSP, has made the process highly democratic. So why isn't support for the bill more Democratic?

It should be. The party is full of former educators, education policy wonks, and administrators who have seen firsthand the dire need to reform the country's many struggling schools. Two of Colorado's most outspoken voices on the issue are Democrats with extensive education backgrounds as a state education board chairman (Rep. Jared Polis) and as the head of the state's largest school district (Bennet). But rightly so, the Democratic mantle as the party for education has been lost, as commonsense ways to help the students who need it most have been shoved aside in favor of political expediency.

Last week's vote to reauthorize the OSP in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed almost exactly along party lines. Assuming the measures passes when it comes before the full chamber in the coming weeks, the Senate will have a real chance -- and, frankly, a more pressing need -- to draw upon a more diverse coalition to reauthorize the highly successful scholarship program. Joe Lieberman's introduction of the bill is a first step towards that, and among the cosponsors is Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Democrats who so staunchly defend their education bonafides have an opportunity with the OSP to positively and immediately affect the educational future of struggling children in D.C. -- they just need to demonstrate the will to do so.

And there's nothing more consistent with who we are as Americans than that.

Malcom Glenn is a communications coordinator at the American Federation for Children, a national education advocacy organization that promotes school choice, and at the Alliance for School Choice, a nonprofit organization that educates policy-makers and the public on school choice programs.