Notre Dame Leaders to Duncan and Durbin: Killing DC Opportunity Scholarships “Unconscionable”

February 17, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We and others have been making the case that killing the Washington DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, despite the highest possible quality evidence showing academic gains for students, was going to raise objections from more than just those of us on the right of center side of the spectrum. Americans believe in equality of opportunity, and no one should be more upset about the actions of Congress to kill DC Opportunity Scholarships than those with a sincere commitment to the interests of the disadvantaged.

Today we have yet more evidence of the revulsion concerning the shameful actions of the Congress in slowly killing the DC opportunity Scholarship Program. Leaders from the University of Notre Dame released a letter sent to Secretary Arne Duncan and Senator Durbin today. They don’t pull their punches: 

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                           

DC Vouchers: One Step Up, Two Steps Back

July 13, 2009


As Matt wrote on Friday, a majority of the DC City Council Members wrote a letter to Arne Duncan expressing their strong support of the DC voucher program, including expansion of the program beyond those currently using scholarships.  The WSJ has yet another great editorial on the topic.  It says, in part:

Earlier this year Illinois Senator Dick Durbin added language to a spending bill that phases out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program after next year. The program provides 1,700 kids $7,500 per year to use toward tuition at a private school of their parents’ choosing. Mr. Durbin’s amendment says no federal money can be spent on the program beyond 2010 unless Congress reauthorizes it and the D.C. Council approves.

The D.C. Council’s letter shows that support for these vouchers is real at the local level and that the opposition exists mainly at the level of the national Democratic Party. Mr. Durbin has suggested that he included the D.C. Council provision in deference to local control. “The government of Washington, D.C., should decide whether they want it in their school district,” he said in March. Well now we know where D.C. stands. We will now see if the national party stands for putting union power and money above the future of poor children.

Will others who’ve offered DC local control as a reason for opposing the voucher program now come out in support of it?  (I’m looking at you, Kevin Carey.)

Unfortunately, even as vouchers benefited from the support of the DC City Council, Senator Durbin was busy introducing new, onerous regulations on the program in an appropriations bill last week.  In particular, his measures would require participating private schools to take the DC public school test rather than a nationally-normed standardized test, even though they may not have the same curriculum as DCPS.  His measures would also require the Secretary of Education to prohibit voucher students from attending any private school that was not deemed “superior” to DC public schools.  The language is unclear as to whether that means the average DC public schools, the best, the worst, or what. 

You know, this may not be such a bad idea.  Maybe no DC public school students should be forced to attend a public school that is worse than average.  How about if we offer them vouchers?

Wait, I’m sure that was not the intent of the new Durbin measures.  The clear purpose is to strangle the program with reasonable-sounding but truly crippling regulation while the entire program is eventually eliminated. 

Senator Feinstein attempted to remove the Durbin measures in the full committee and Senators Landreau and Byrd joined her in that effort.  But they failed on a tie vote.  It was particularly disappointing to see Senator Mark Pryor vote with Durbin.  Pryor has to be careful not to move further left than his Arkansas constituents as he follows the national leadership or he could finally face a serious challenger for re-election.

Was He Stupid or Lying? Durbin-Blagojevich Edition

June 3, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

A while back, noting Sen. Dick Durbin’s flagrantly false statements about the DC voucher study – he said the study didn’t show voucher students outperformed the control group, which is entirely true except for the fact that it did show voucher students outperforming the control group – Jay asked “is he stupid or lying?”

“Of course,” he added, “when it comes to an Illinois pol, one doesn’t have to choose. He could be both.”

Not long ago, when Sen. Durbin made similarly misleading (though now more carefully weaseled) statements in USA Today, Jay remarked, “I’m beginning to lean toward the lying end.”

The first sign of a good scientist is that he adjusts his theory in response to new data!

Well here’s another new datum to factor into our “stupid or lying” calculus. The AP reports that Durbin offered to help Rod Blagojevich make a deal for Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Take it away, AP (emphasis added):

CHICAGO (AP) – Just two weeks before his arrest on corruption charges, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich floated a plan to nominate to the U.S. Senate the daughter of his biggest political rival in return for concessions on his pet projects, people familiar with the plan told The Associated Press.
Blagojevich told fellow Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin he was thinking of naming Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the seat vacated when Barack Obama won the presidential election, according to two Durbin aides who spoke on condition of anonymity…
The aides said the concessions Blagojevich wanted in return were progress on capital spending projects and a health care bill that were stalled in the Legislature…
According to the Senate aides, Durbin was delighted to hear that Blagojevich was thinking of naming Madigan to the seat. He believed she would be a popular figure in Illinois and stood perhaps the best chance of holding the seat against a Republican.
Durbin volunteered to call the attorney general or the speaker to get the ball rolling and possibly broker an agreement, the aides said.

When the AP came calling about the story, Durbin’s office offered no comment.

Moe Lane of Red State comments: “This would only be a bombshell if it had been unexpected…Senator Dick Durbin has had since November some very significant corroborating evidence that Governor Rod Blagojevich really was corruptly auctioning off a Senate seat.  This is information that would have been very helpful when it came to the timing of Blagojevich’s impeachment, seating Burris, and/or fixing the entire problem with a special election.  And yet, Durbin did or said nothing. I don’t wonder why.  Then again, I know enough about this story to know that the Senator hadn’t realized that his talks with Blagojevich were being recorded.”

Lane highlights the implication that Durbin knew about Blago’s corruption all along, and kept vital information under his hat during the crisis. And Illinois-based politicians betraying the public trust by keeping vital information out of public circulation during a crisis does seem to be emerging as a meme in the DC voucher story.

But doesn’t it seem more important that AP is reporting Durbin offered to help broker the deal?

Yes, what Durbin offered to help arrange was not a bribe to be paid directly to Blago. It was conessions on Blago’s pet projects, including “capital spending projects.” Yet that’s bad enough, isn’t it? I’m aware that people take alliances and rivalries into account when they make these kinds of appointments. But isn’t it something else entirely to arrange a quid-pro-quo transaction of legislative votes for nominations?

And if you insist that there must be a personal bribe involved before we can say it’s wrong, let me ask you: given what we know about Blago, what kind of odds would you give that he wasn’t going to wet his beak on any of those “capital spending projects”? And doesn’t that make Durbin complicit? Or just how dumb are you willing to say Durbin is?

HT Moe Lane, via Jim Geraghty

Would You Want This Man As Your Chief Advocate?

May 19, 2009

Rocket scientist and wholly-owned subsidiary of the teacher union, Sen. Dick Durbin, makes his best attempt to write a negative op-ed on D.C. vouchers in USA Today this morning.  The unsigned main editorial in the paper endorses D.C. vouchers and Durbin was given the opportunity to articulate the opposing view.

Durbin writes:

“Now, after three years of study, the results of that evaluation are in, and the U.S. Department of Education found: no statistically significant improvement in math scores for any voucher students (boys or girls); no statistically significant improvement in scores for male voucher students; no statistically significant improvement in scores for students transferring from failing schools (the targets of the voucher program), and only a slight improvement in reading scores for female voucher students (equivalent to three months of additional reading proficiency).”

The program also did not produce statistically significant gains for space aliens and did not make voucher students more handsome or grant them super-powers (HT to Matt).  There are many things that the D.C. voucher program did not do or that the rigorous study could not detect with high confidence for small sub-groups of students.

But one thing that the program did do that Durbin somehow fails to mention is raise reading scores significantly in the analysis of all students offered vouchers.  That is, he mentioned almost every tiny sub-group analysis lacking the statistical power to detect significant effects but leaves out the overall effect of the program. 

This selective and misleading reporting of results is obviously disingenuous.  I’m beginning to lean toward the lying end of stupid or lying.

Why would the union’s water-boy make such an obviously misleading and weak argument?  Can’t they find anyone better to do their bidding? 

Unfortunately, the teacher unions may feel like they don’t have to do any better than this.  As long as they offer their supporters some fig leaf for killing a program proven to work, they are going to press forward.  They don’t have to defend their ideas; they just have to have enough brute force to win.  And unfortunately it seems that they believe they have enough brute force.  That’s why they didn’t even bother to show up to the Senate hearings to defend their position.  They don’t care about being right — only about getting what they want.

Obama Stops Making Sense

May 6, 2009

Maybe Obama didn’t like the negative publicity of today’s voucher rally in DC.  Maybe he was tired of being regularly beat up in the pages of the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.  Whatever it was, administration officials announced today that they will seek to “grandfather” all 1,700 current voucher students in the program until they graduate high school.

On the one hand, this is a victory for the voucher advocates and shows that their efforts have been effective.  On the other hand, this is a clever political move for Obama that allows him to kill the DC voucher program without paying the political price of denying low-income kids access to a program that the official evaluation has deemed beneficial.  Just because he’s not ripping this opportunity out of the hands of the existing 1,700 students doesn’t mean that he’s not ripping it out of the hands of every future student who could benefit from it.

Grandfathering in the existing students may be humane and politically savvy, but it is also logically incoherent.  If the program helps kids then why not let future students into the program so that they could also be helped?  If the program doesn’t help kids, why let these 1,700 continue in it?  For an administration that prides itself on its commitment to science and doing whatever works regardless of ideology or predisposition, they sure seem like Clintonian political triangulators completely impervious to evidence or common sense.

Besides, even to get the grandfathering we have to move the congressional democrats, led by rocket scientist Dick Durbin (who attended and whose children attended private schools).

(edited for typos)

You’re Locked in Here with Me!

April 16, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Watchmen has a great scene where one of the heroes is unmasked and sent to prison. Needless to say, the place is swimming in criminal anxious to kill him. Our hero, a rather rough-edged sort of chap, is assaulted in line by a prisoner far larger than himself and using a makeshift knife to boot.

Not only does our hero quickly disable his attacker, for good measure, he smashes a plate of glass, grabs a container of hot cooking grease, and douses the bloke who dared to assault him. As the prison guards dragged him away, he growled out “You don’t seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you…YOU’RE LOCKED IN HERE WITH ME!!!!!”

You can watch this, grisly violence and all, here: 

Now much gloom surrounds the fight over DC vouchers. Jay even seems to refer to them in the past tense in the Wall Street Journal. Could it be, however, that we’ve misread things? Perhaps we’re not locked in the prison with Dick Durbin. Perhaps he is locked in the prison with us.

Mike Petrilli writes:

Now Messrs. Obama and Duncan find themselves in a Vietnam-style quagmire. They’ve crushed the hopes and dreams of 200 low-income D.C. families while staking out the otherwise-reasonably-decent position that 1,700 youngsters already in the program should be protected until they graduate. Yet even that outcome is in doubt, as the program’s enemies strive to kill it outright. Meanwhile, both are vulnerable to personal attacks, with the President’s children in an elite private school and the Secretary admitting that he chose a (public) school outside the District for his daughter because he didn’t want to “jeopardize my own children’s education.”

The time has come for both to learn some key lessons. First: though it might look like a teapot, the D.C. voucher program is capable of causing a major tempest that isn’t going to end anytime soon. Second: if you want Congress to cough up funds to keep the program’s current students in their schools, it’s going to take a fight–an affirmative fight by you in defense of vouchers that work for poor kids! And third: don’t fear such a fight, because the facts–not to mention a compelling human narrative–are on your side.

This fight rids us of all illusions- you are either with the kids, or with the unions. Period. You either believe in evidence based education reform, or you do not. No middle ground. If you are a Democrat, you must choose whether you are a hero or a zero. If you want to be a zero, are you willing to throw 1,700 kids under the bus in order to do it?

No amount of complaining by policy wonks, of course, is going to change the political realities on this. It’s not hard to imagine, however, the DC Parents drenching the zeros in the political equivalent of hot grease.

In today’s Wall Street Journal Jay makes a lot of good points about the teacher unions and their true feelings about charter schools.  Along the way, however, he says Obama has “done union bidding by killing the D.C. voucher program.”  This is likely true, but readers should not think that all attempts to save the program have run their course.  Senator Lieberman has stated that he plans to hold hearings about the program in May.  Senator Feinstein said in March that if the official evaluation by the Department of Ed found positive results (which it did) then she too would support extending the program. Negative press and public pressure calling on Obama to support reauthorizing the program has been increasing daily. 

Congress and, most importantly, President Obama, still have an opportunity to do the right thing, stand by their stated principles, and reauthorize a program that has been scientifically proven to help disadvantaged D.C. schoolchildren improve their lives. 

DC kids would tell Jay (although certainly with less cheese):

The Chicago Tribune on DC Vouchers

April 12, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Old Illinois hands Durbin, Duncan and Obama loom large in the battle over reauthorization of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program. Today, the Chicago Tribune weighs in an editorial named Do What’s Best for Kids:

Durbin told us he’s “not ruling out supporting this” voucher program. He’ll await further evidence at hearings to be chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.)

Sen. Durbin, Secretary Duncan, the evidence is piling up on your desks. The burden of proof is squarely on you to prove why, after so few years, we should stop—and stop evaluating—a program that is showing certifiable prospects of changing the futures of disadvantaged kids. You gentlemen know the embarrassing truth of what we’ve said previously: Opponents of school vouchers don’t want to snuff the life out of this program because they think it’s failing, but because they fear it’s working.

This is an excellent opportunity for both of you to acknowledge that you’ve been too hasty—and that if vouchers do work, the Obama administration will want to expand them, not quash them. As the now-president put it, we need to do what’s best for kids.