Dianne FeinsteinU.S. Senator Class 1
[D] California, United States

Length: 13 minutes, 10 seconds

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Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Mr. President, I thank you for the recognition.

I thank the distinguished Senator and chairman of the committee for his leadership on this issue. Also, the Senator from Maine is in the Chamber. I thank her for her support. [Page: S1593] This has not been an easy program. It has always surprised me that people oppose anything that might give an individual another opportunity. I believe very deeply that some children do well in one kind of setting, other children do well in another kind of setting, and the real goal of education ought to be to provide a number of different choices for youngsters so you can see where they learn best and then enable them to be in that situation. I also have always had a hard time understanding why only the well-to-do can afford a private school, why youngsters have to go to schools that are among the most troubled and, candidly, the worst anywhere because that is the way it is and that is what public education insists it be. So I have supported this program for some 6 years now, since its inception under the leadership of District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, and I strongly believe it should be continued. It is right.

It started out as a 5-year pilot program to determine whether youngsters, low-income students, do, in fact, learn more and learn better in some of DC's private and parochial schools. The program's most recent evaluation results show this program is, in fact, valid and students are, in fact, improving. So I say, why not reauthorize it? What is everybody scared of? Why not reauthorize it? The scholarships of up to $7,500 that are offered through the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program help children make their education in a private or parochial school possible.

Currently, we know this: There are 1,319 children who attend 45 private and parochial schools. They all come from families where the average income is $25,000, and 85 percent of these students would be in DC's worst performing public schools if it were not for this program.

This amendment would extend the life of this worthy program for 5 more years and allow both current and new students the opportunity to participate. What are we afraid of? It is supported by DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, as the chairman said; DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee--one very gutsy young superintendent; a majority of the District's council; and by parents in the District.

What are we afraid of? Preliminary evaluations by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences have shown academic gains and student improvement. When these students entered the program 6 years ago, they were performing in the bottom third on reading and math tests in the District's public schools. Last year's more comprehensive evaluation shows that reading test scores of students receiving a scholarship were higher by the equivalent of 3 months of additional schooling. It showed that they increased to the 35th percentile on the SAT-9 national standardized test from the 33rd percentile where they were before entering the program. So progress has been made. Specifically, pilot program students scored 4.5 points higher in reading on the SAT-9, with a total score of 635.4 when compared to the District's public school students' score of 630.9. These academic gains are despite the many challenges these students face outside the classroom, coming from families where the average income is $25,000.

I look forward to learning more in the months ahead of how students are performing in the program and the impact it has had on them. But in the meantime, there are these results. They may not be major, but what they are showing is that youngsters are learning to read better in this new setting than they were in the public school setting. That, indeed, is something.

I would like to share three examples with you of how the program has helped change the lives of the District's youngsters and how it has shown to give them a chance to reach their highest potential.

Let me give you the first one. OK. Here we are. This is a picture of Shirley-Ann Tomdio, a ninth grade student at Georgetown Visitation High School. I have someone very close to me at Georgetown Visitation. This is a tough academic school, so this youngster has gone from one of the worst schools to a very strong academic school.

The scholarship has allowed her to attend this school for the past 5 years. She is now a ninth grade student at Georgetown Visitation School, and she wants to go to college and become a surgeon. She was the eighth grade valedictorian at Sacred Heart Middle School which is located in the District's neighborhood of Columbia Heights.

Shirley-Ann said at her eighth grade graduation speech last year: The DC OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] is important to me because without it I wouldn't be able to receive the best education possible. It should continue so that my brother, sister, and other students get the same chance. Every child should get the chance to go to a good school.

Who can disagree with that? That is her statement. She is one of the lucky ones. She will go on, and she will do well.

The second student is Carlos Battle. He is a twelfth grade student at Georgetown Day School. He has attended a private school for the past 6 years, since the program started. He is a well-rounded student, participating in school plays. He enjoys classes in classical and modern dance. He plays on the basketball team. And he maintains a solid grade point average of 3.1. He wants to go to college and has already been accepted to Northeastern University with a possible full scholarship, and Loyola University, among other colleges.

He comes from a family with a single mother and has a younger brother named Calvin who is currently an eighth grader at St. Francis Xavier Academy, also with a scholarship from the program.

Carlos said this about his experience in the program: The scholarships I have received through the Washington Scholarship Fund have afforded me countless opportunities, but most important, I have been given the chance to better myself. Now, instead of wanting to be someone who is well-known on the streets, I'd rather be someone who is well-known for his education, communication, and advocacy skills. I now no longer have to worry about fights breaking out in my classroom, or being threatened on a constant basis.

With this security, I'm able to focus harder and become more active in my school's community. Even better, I can look forward to the future. If I keep on this same track, I am almost guaranteed a better future for my family and for myself.

Why should we be afraid of this program? Let me show you a third youngster, Sanya Arias. This is someone who is now attending St. John's University in New York. She graduated last year from Archbishop Carroll High School with a 3.95 grade point average and is now in her first year at St. John's University in New York with a full scholarship, and she loves it.

The DC opportunity scholarship helped Sanya attend Archbishop Carroll High where she was vice president of her class, captain of the soccer team, on the lacrosse team, and president of the International Club.

In addition to her many extracurricular activities, Sanya took all honors and advanced placement courses. She said this about her experience in the program after just graduating from Archbishop Carroll High School: It just shows the difference from 7th and 8th grade to where I am now, where my friends strive to succeed and they influence me to want to succeed along with them. So, I'm really grateful for this opportunity.

Why don't the words of students such as Sanya, Carlos, and Shirley-Ann affect us? Why don't they enable us to see that choice in education is not something that is threatening? I serve on the Appropriations Committee. I was one of the deciding votes in that committee when this came up. We put a lot of amount of money, additionally, into the District for public education to be able to sustain a simple choice opportunity program.

This program goes to the District's neediest students from the District's most failing schools. I have just shown my colleagues three who have succeeded. Is that not worth it? I do not understand why we are so afraid to give needy youngsters the opportunity of choice in education, to allow someone who cannot do well in a certain setting to have a different setting in which they may well be able to do very well.

I say to these three youngsters: All the more power to you. I am very proud. We should listen to students such as Sanya, Carlos, and Shirley-Ann and continue to provide this program to the District's neediest children. We need different models for different children, and I think this program is showing that. [Page: S1594] I don't know, there is a lot of lobbying against the program. The teachers union does not like the program. I don't understand why. I don't understand what is to fear. I don't understand why, if you provide some funding for poor children to go to a special environment to learn and they learn and this youngster now is in a university because of it--I think that is what we are all about. I strongly support this program.

I thank Senator Lieberman for his support and advocacy for it and his leadership in bringing this to the floor. I hope we have the votes.

I yield the floor.