DC’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provided tuition money to poor students that seek a shot at a better education by going to Catholic schools, is dying a slow death in Congress. The President of the University of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, as well as the President Emeritus, Father Ted Hesburgh, and the priest who runs the program in Education Initiatives at Notre Dame, Father Timothy Scully, have written a joint letter to Senator Richard Durbin and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, calling for the program to be extended, not killed.
The issue of tuition assistance to students in private schools is fraught with symbolic import. The teachers’ unions that represent the teachers in public schools are deeply opposed to any assistance to non-public schools. They cite two concerns, one that is important and the other which is less so. The not-so important concern is that such funding will drain money from the public schools. In fact, very little money is at issue. The other concern is more difficult to address. If those parents who are really concerned about their children’s education take their kids out of the public schools, they will be less likely to continue to be concerned about improving the public schools. They rightly worry that any diminution in focus on how to improve the public schools is worrisome.
The letter from the leaders at Notre Dame, however, has special authority in addressing this latter, legitimate concern. After all, the program they administer is designed to disseminate information about what works and what doesn’t work in education reform efforts. There is not reason such information cannot be used to help strengthen public schools too. In short, the Catholic schools can serve as a laboratory, the results of which can help improve public schools too. Furthermore, whatever the other issues, the fact is that the DC public schools are failing and there is nothing symbolic about that for the students who are stuck there. Real students with real hopes will be hurt if the program ends.
As a nation, we should be doing everything to improve our schools. Continuing the Opportunity Scholarship Program will not detract from that effort. Here is the text of the letter to Durbin and Duncan:
Dear Senator Durbin and Secretary Duncan,
Warmest greetings from the University of Notre Dame. We hope this letter finds both of you well, and that the new year has been filled with grace and blessings for you and your families.
We write today because we are all deeply disappointed by the turn of events that has led to the imminent demise of the Washington DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), and we are gravely concerned about the effects that the unprecedented gestures that have jeopardized this program will have on some of the most at-risk children in our nation’s capital.
For the past decade, the University of Notre Dame, through its Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), has served as the nation’s largest provider of teachers and principals for inner-city Catholic schools. Since 1993, we have prepared more than 1,000 teachers and hundreds of principals to work in some of the poorest Catholic schools in the nation. That experience, along with the research that we have sponsored through our Center for Research on Educational Opportunity, leads us to an unqualified conclusion: the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program provides an educational lifeline to at-risk children, standing unequivocally as one of the greatest signs of hope for K-12 educational reform. To allow its demise, to effectively force more than 1,700 poor children from what is probably the only good school they’ve ever attended, strikes us as an unconscionable affront to the ideal of equal opportunity for all.
Three decades of research tell us that Catholic schools are often the best providers of educational opportunity to poor and minority children. Students who attend Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and are two and a half times more likely to graduate from college than their peers in public schools. Recent scholarship on high school graduation rates in Milwaukee confirms that programs like the OSP can, over time, create remarkable opportunities for at-risk children. And after only three years, the research commissioned by the Department of Education is clear and strong with regard to the success of the OSP, as you both well know. This program empowers parents to become more involved in their children’s education. Parents of OSP students argue that their children are doing better in school, and they report that these scholarships have given their families an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty. If this program ends, these parents will be forced to send their children back to a school system that is ranked among the worst in the nation, into schools they fought desperately to leave just a few years ago.
At Notre Dame, we have recently witnessed the painful but logical outcomes of your failure to save the OSP. For the past three years, the University of Notre Dame has worked in close partnership with Holy Redeemer School, a preK-8 Catholic school community located just a few blocks from Senator Durbin’s office on the Hill. In fact, Senator Durbin visited the school and expressed his deeply favorable impression. We too have witnessed the transformative capacity of Holy Redeemer, a place where parents report feeling a sincere sense of ownership in their children’s education for the first time in their lives. Indeed, over the past three years strong leadership, excellent academics, low teacher turnover, and committed parents have all contributed to truly outstanding gains in student achievement. The children at Holy Redeemer were, unlike so many of their peers, on the path to college.
So we were deeply saddened to learn that the impending termination of the OSP has put the school in an untenable situation, leading the pastor to conclude that the school must be closed. Families are presently being notified that their children will have to find a new school next year. The end of the OSP represents more than the demise of a relatively small federal program; it spells the end of more than a half-century of quality Catholic education for some of the most at-risk African American children in the District. That this program is being allowed to end is both unnecessary and unjust.
We—and many others in the Notre Dame community—are wholeheartedly committed to protecting the educational opportunity of these children. We encourage you to reconsider protecting the OSP and the children it serves from this grave and historic injustice. You are joined by Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, by the faculty and students on Notre Dame’s campus, by tens of thousands of Notre Dame alumni nationwide, and by millions of Catholic school families across the country in a steadfast commitment to ensure that these children continue to receive the educational opportunity that is their birthright.
Please know of our deepest appreciation for your consideration of this request. We hope and pray that we can work together with you to save this program.
Yours, in Notre Dame,
Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC
President, University of Notre Dame
Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC
President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame
Rev. Timothy R. Scully, CSC
Director, Institute for Educational Initiatives
University of Notre Dame