A Time for Local Young People to SOAR

SOAR Act

This summer has seen some positive steps taken by politicians from both sides of the aisle, but more remains to be done. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that, among other things, includes the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act of 2016 (SOAR), which would extend the highly popular D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) through 2021. We hope for final passage of the overall legislation this fall.

The OSP program offers underprivileged families the opportunity and freedom to obtain the best education they can for their children. It is a proven means of providing for an equitable distribution of the education monies which we all contribute to through our taxes; it also has been demonstrated to bring greater academic success for the young people who participate. Specifically, the OSP program provides financial assistance to low-income parents so their children, instead of being consigned to a failing public school, can receive an indispensable quality education at a non-public school if they so choose.

Recognizing the fundamental right of parents to guide their children’s education, OSP is part of a three-pronged effort under the umbrella of the SOAR Act to increase educational opportunities for low-income families in the nation’s capital. Under this legislation, first inaugurated in 2004 through a bipartisan effort among District leaders and congressional legislators, annual federal funding is authorized equally for each of the three educational sectors that parents might send their children – public schools, charter schools, and non-public schools.

Maryland’s leaders demonstrated a similar bipartisan spirit earlier this year in approving the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program, which will fund scholarships for children from low-income families to attend non-public schools beginning in this upcoming school year. Again, parents have the choice and they have eagerly applied for the scholarships, reflecting the broad appeal of a program to provide fairer and more equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.

Since the inception of OSP in 2004, more than 6,600 District children – many of whom live in the city’s poorest neighborhoods – have received scholarships that have enabled them to receive a quality education at a non-public school. About 87 percent of these young people come from zones with public schools classified “in need of improvement.”

The OSP program opens the door to a brighter future for those who otherwise might be denied the key component to the opportunities for a better life: a good education. In a community where too many public school children drop out before graduating, studies have shown that OSP students achieve high academic scores and high graduation rates, and in turn more than 90 percent go on to college. Not surprisingly, the scholarship program has widespread support among people throughout the District. OSP parents themselves report high satisfaction rates and the number of applications each year exceeds the number of scholarships available.

In expressing support for reauthorization of SOAR and specifically OSP, the Washington Post states, “The scholarships provide a lifeline to low-income and underserved families, giving them the school choice that more affluent families take as a given. And because the program results in more federal money for D.C. public education and not less – another myth advanced by opponents – it’s time for Congress to act.”

Significantly, Mayor Muriel Bowser and eight members of the D.C. Council have urged congressional leaders of both parties to reauthorize the SOAR Act soon. Otherwise, this initiative which is so critical to young people’s futures will expire.

As Congress resumes work, it is only right that members consider the hopes of the children in this community so that they might SOAR as high as they can. SOAR reauthorization would be a win for public school students, a win for those who go to charter schools, and a win for disadvantaged families who seek a better future for their children through the OSP program.

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