Local Reps. cast votes against school vouchers

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PROVIDENCE—Diocesan officials expressed disappointment that Rhode Island's two congressmen for opposing a school voucher program that provides low-income students in Washington D.C. an opportunity to attend private schools.

On March 30, in a vote largely along party lines, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill 225-195 to reauthorize and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides federal funds to help low-income families pay for private school tuition.

Rhode Island Congressmen James Langevin and David Cicciline joined all but one of their Democratic colleagues in voting against the program, which still faces an uphill climb in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Father Bernard A. Healey, the government liaison for the Diocese of Providence, questioned Langevin and Cicciline for opposing "an excellent program" that provided students in one of the nation's worst public education systems a chance to receive a solid education.

"Unfortunately, Congressmen Langevin and Cicciline did not vote to support this great program. Instead, they decided it was better to hold the children of the District of Columbia hostage in a failing public school system," Father Healey said.

"When Langevin and Cicciline voted against the DC Opportunity Program, they voted against providing a chance for a child to receive a quality education and raise themselves out of poverty. We expect our elected officials to serve the common good of our society; not to follow the directions of the special interest who fill their campaign coffers."

Spokespersons for Cicciline and Langevin did not return messages from Rhode Island Catholic seeking comment.

Daniel Ferris, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Providence, told Rhode Island Catholic he was disappointed to see Rhode Island's congressmen vote along party lines.

"I really wish they had spoken to some children in the District of Columbia who had benefited from that program," Ferris said. "In the nation's capital, you have one of the least praiseworthy school systems. Unfortunately, they voted against something that would serve the school children."

Ferris, a former assistant superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia, said he had first-hand experience with the Opportunity Scholarship Program. He taught at a private school in Washington D.C., and said the voucher program gave opportunities to children who would otherwise have been stuck in deplorable public schools.

"It was a golden opportunity for these children to get out of poverty and escape schools that were academically shipwrecked," Ferris said. "Many of the children who benefited were minority students. It was a lifeline for these kids.

"I have seen the difference it made in the lives of individual students," Ferris said. "The success rate was astounding. And those kids would not be where they were at today, on their way to college, if not for the opportunity."

The Obama Administration released a statement last week saying it opposed the creation of private school voucher programs authorized by the bill expanding the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The Obama Administration said: "The Federal Government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public school for all students. Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement."

"It's a shame that Obama took steps to end the program," Ferris said. "It's well-worth every tax dollar that goes into it."

Meanwhile, Kevin P. Chavous, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Julio Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, issued a joint statement criticizing President Barack Obama for his opposition to the program.

"If President Obama continues his fight against school choice and education reform, history will long remember him as someone who failed to stand up to richly funded special interest groups and, in the process, denied low-income and minority children access to better schools."