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.
Opponents Say Vouchers Are Not a Lasting Solution
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.
"I don't want to save 1 or 2 percent of children and let 98 to 99 percent drown. We have to be much more ambitious than that. And we have to expect more," he added. "This is why I would argue ... rather than taking three kids out of there and putting them in a better school and feeling good and sleeping well at night, I want to turn that school around now and do that for those 400, 500, 800, 1,200 kids in that school, and give every child in that school, in that community, something better and do it with a real sense of urgency."
Those in favor of the program say that without the scholarships, children are left no choice but to attend under-performing public schools while they wait for Washington's schools to turn around. In the 2008-2009 school year, more than 1,700 students were enrolled in the scholarship program, costing the federal government roughly $12 million.
"Why do we want to trap these kids in schools that aren't working?" Spellings asked today.
Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, and others have introduced bipartisan legislation to save the program for five additional years. And just Tuesday, longtime opponent Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., signaled he is open to supporting a reauthorization under certain conditions.
"I have to work with my colleagues if this is going to be reauthorized, which it might be," Durbin said during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, later adding that he understands "many students are getting a good education in the program."
Congress "has been slow to recognize that this has always been a bipartisan effort," Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, told ABC News.
Allen believes Democrats were quick to cancel the program because it was initiated under the previous, Republican, administration.
"They are cleaning house," she said.
At today's rally, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, urged the crowd to ramp up their calls for action.
"I am a big believer in giving options to all our children," he said. "We need to continue to organize and put pressure on Congress to support the D.C. voucher program."
Today, the advocacy group D.C. Parents for School Choice launched a quarter-million-dollar television ad campaign urging the president to call on Congress to reauthorize the program. The ad will run on national cable news networks.