March 18, 2010
Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC
A Setback for Educational Civil Rights
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked me to become one of the founding members of the newly formed U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, African-Americans drank at separate water fountains and our schools were segregated. A decade later, when people came together to march against these injustices, the idea that a black man could ever be elected president of the United States was still something for dreamers. My experience with that great movement gives me a particular appreciation for the historic importance of the presidency of Barack Obama—and the new dreams that his example will inspire in our young.
If Martin Luther King Jr. told me once, he told me a hundred times that the key to solving our country's race problem is plain as day: Find decent schools for our kids. So I was especially heartened to hear Education Secretary Arne Duncan repeatedly call education the "civil rights issue of our generation." Millions of our children—disproportionately poor and minority—remain trapped in failing public schools that condemn them to lives on the fringe of the American Dream.
For all these reasons, I was deeply disappointed when Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) successfully inserted a provision in last year's omnibus spending bill that ended one of the best efforts to give these struggling children the chance to attend a safe and decent school.
That effort is called the Opportunity Scholarship program. Since 2004 it has allowed thousands of children in Washington, D.C., to escape one of the worst public school systems in the nation by providing them with scholarships of up to $7,500.
Despite its successes, it is now closing down. On Tuesday the Senate voted against a measure introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) that would have extended the program. Throughout this process Mr. Duncan's Education Department and the White House raised no protest.
Much has been written about the crisis in education, and the effective resegregation of our public schools. It's clear who is paying the price. A study a few years ago from Johns Hopkins University highlighted the terrible disparity of the current system: Nearly half of our nation's African-American students, nearly 40% of Latino students, but only 11% of white students attend high schools in which graduation is not the norm.
Many of the parents using Opportunity Scholarships chose Catholic schools for their children even though they are not Catholic themselves. That's no coincidence. When others abandoned the cities, the Catholic schools remained, and they continue to do heroic work.
At Notre Dame we launched our own efforts to bolster this mission. Our Alliance for Catholic Education, for example, takes talented young men and women, trains them to see teaching as a career, and then sends them into struggling inner-city schools such as Holy Redeemer in Washington, D.C.
But these inner-city schools can't do it themselves. Recently the archdiocese of Washington announced that Holy Redeemer would be forced to close its doors at the end of the year because the families who send their children to the school are unable to afford it without the financial aid they receive from this program. The archdiocese stated that "decisions last year by the U.S. Department of Education and by Congress to phase out the federal D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program . . . negatively impacted Holy Redeemer's financial situation."
Of Holy Redeemer's 149 students, 60 were on Opportunity Scholarships. Unlike so many of their peers, these kids were on their way to college. Now they have to find some other safe haven. Others will never get the chance at all.
I know that some consider voucher programs such as the Opportunity Scholarships a right-wing affair. I do not accept that label. This program was passed with the bipartisan support of a Republican president and Democratic mayor. The children it serves are neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal or conservative. They are the future of our nation, and they deserve better from our nation's leaders.
I have devoted my life to equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of skin color. I don't pretend that this one program is the answer to all the injustices in our education system. But it is hard to see why a program that has proved successful shouldn't have the support of our lawmakers. The end of Opportunity Scholarships represents more than the demise of a relatively small federal program. It will help write the end of more than a half-century of quality education at Catholic schools serving some of the most at-risk African-American children in the District.
I cannot believe that a Democratic administration will let this injustice stand.
Father Hesburgh is the former president of the University of Notre Dame.