While most children across the country have been in school for several weeks now, 4-year-old Nia Thomas spends her days waiting. Nia is one of 216 students in Washington, D.C., who received federal scholarships last spring to attend local private schools, only to have the funding abruptly revoked by the government.
Her mother, LaTasha Bennett, joined more than 1,000 parents, students and elected officials at a protest today on Capitol Hill to urge Congress, the Education Department and President Obama to change their minds and reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income students.
"These politicians can't put themselves in my shoes," said Bennett, who is now trying privately to raise the $5,700 annual tuition to send Nia to Naylor Roads private school in southeast D.C. "They can't understand our struggle to get our children good educations."
Since its inception in 2004, the federally funded pilot program has given vouchers -- up to $7,500 per child -- to more than 3,000 low-income children.
Students already enrolled in the program, including Nia's older brother, 8-year-old Nico Thomas, are allowed to keep their funding and continue in their private schools until graduation. But without congressional reauthorization, the program will sunset later this year, meaning scholarships for additional children will remain out of the question.
Those in favor of reauthorization point to a study by the Department of Education showing the program had a statistically significant impact on reading scores and increased parent satisfaction. In addition, proponents note that the scholarships are just one leg of the three-tiered program, which also provides funding to traditional public schools and public charter schools.
"There are a lot of politicians running around saying, 'We're going to put kids first,' but when it comes time to walk the walk, they aren't doing it," former Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said today.
Democratic City Councilman Marion Barry, Washington's former mayor, agreed, calling those who oppose the program "hypocritical."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan rejected that notion.
"The children who were in school, we fought hard to keep them in their schools. Congress has made it clear they are not accepting any additional students," Duncan told ABC News last month. "So, kids that were in schools, we wanted them to go. Kids who weren't yet in when the program ended, according to Congress, it didn't make sense. ... I encourage them to come in and look at what's going on with the public schools here in D.C. It's pretty exciting."
Duncan strongly opposes vouchers and has made clear his belief that the money is better spent investing in lasting reforms.
"Vouchers usually serve 1 to 2 percent of the children in the community. And I think we, as the federal government, we as local governments or we as school districts, we have to be more ambitious than that," Duncan said in a speech before the National Press club last May.