Forwards into the past, people

3rd April 2009 at 01:00

"Yes we can." That was the call from presidential hopeful Barack Obama. "The change we need" was another, while his book The Audacity of Hope summed up the yearning that so many Americans had for change. More than the "experienced" Hillary Clinton, Obama caught the mood of the nation; he swept to the Democratic nomination and went on to win the presidential race.

You would expect the people of Washington DC to be overjoyed. I don't mean the politicians and lobbyists; I mean the real people, the largest black populace of any American metropolitan city. And they were; but some are having second thoughts, the change they were expecting is not the change they are about to receive.

Back in 2004, Washington DC was able - with the support of President Bush and Congress - to introduce the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP), a limited education voucher system available to the poorest (almost always black) families in the city. Its aim was to allow these children to access private schools of their own choice.

Washington DC was not the first to try education vouchers - but what hit the headlines was when the black Democrat Washington Mayor Tony Williams was supported by a parents' demonstration on Capitol Hill, demanding they be allowed to have a pilot scheme too. Granted their wish, the scholarship programme was given four years to prove itself. In that time, the numbers of parents applying increased and the proportion of pupils taking up the scholarships expanded.

In 2008, a US Department of Education study found that pupils using vouchers were attaining better academic results than their peers, that parents were happier with the safety and quality of their schools than before and were overwhelmingly satisfied with their children's involvement in the programme. A common experience was how the voucher-using families adopted a more educationally focused ethos in the home.

In other states, the move towards introducing scholarship or voucher programmes has been gathering pace. Some 171,000 pupils in 10 states and DC are on programmes, an 8 per cent increase over 2008 and an 89 per cent increase on 2004. Forty-four considered school choice legislation in 2007-08.

Crucially, the political support is bipartisan. Democrat-run state legislators such as Louisiana, where the Democrats sponsored the Bill, are in the US vanguard with Republicans, as ways to improve educational achievement are sought. In Florida, a third of the Democratic representatives backed a $30 million increase in the state's tax-credited scholarship system.

Teachers, never to be confused with teachers' unions, have started to support the schemes. Education Next, a 2008 Harvard University study, established that 65 per cent of teachers supported tax credit programmes, a third supported universal vouchers for all and less than half were opposed to vouchers.

With such evidence-based findings and political support, it was looking good for the continuation of the scheme - but for one thing: Bush has been replaced by Obama and with that change came an even more partisan Democrat congress. Obama has never been clear on his approach to the voucher programmes, but many politicians in Congress, supported by teacher unions, are vehemently opposed. The $410bn omnibus bill that has passed through the House and is now in the Senate has a clause that will kill the scheme with effect from the end of this year.

It now falls on America's first black President to persuade Congress to let Washington continue with a programme that benefits poor, mainly black families - against the wishes of the mainly white professional elite. The people voted for change. Forwards into the past was not what they expected.

Brian Monteith was part of a Scottish Parliament delegation which visited the DCOSP in 2006.

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