Photo courtesy Krissie P at Flickr

Ronald Reagan once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” To frighten many African Americans, though, it only takes eight: “I’m a conservative, and I’m here to help.”

Case in point is the effort by conservative groups to protect something called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a monstrosity foisted onto District residents—who have no vote in the House or the Senate to have a voice in the matter—by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2004. The noble-sounding program—what’s not to love about “opportunity” and “scholarships”?—is an $18 million private-school voucher program, a weapon in the conservative arsenal to erode support for public schools.

It is sold as a lifeline for African-American children in the District who would otherwise be condemned, as supporters of the vouchers would have everyone believe, to not knowing their ass from their elbow in D.C.’s public schools. It is a prototype for a $100 million program the Bush administration has wanted to spread nationwide.

The problem is, the results don’t match the hype. A Department of Education report released this week said, in effect, that children in the District who are sent to a private school with a voucher are about as likely to not know their asses from their elbows as children attending those so-called awful public schools. To quote the report:

After 2 years, there was no statistically significant difference in test scores in general between students who were offered an OSP scholarship and students who were not offered a scholarship. Overall, those in the treatment and control groups were performing at comparable levels in mathematics and reading.

That’s the second report by the Education Department that has reached that conclusion about the program, and this latest one helps bolster the case of some Democrats, including District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who want to phase out the program. The program got a something of a reprieve this week from a House appropriations subcommittee, which approved continued funding for the program, but there is a chance that the full committee could reverse that decision when it meets either later this week or next.

So the right-wing spin machine is going into overdrive in the name of African-American children. Typical is a statement issued Wednesday from the Cascade Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Oregon, which warned that “the U.S. Congress is about to put thousands of low-income black students in the back of the bus” by killing the program.

They are being helped by Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who issued a press release about the report with a headline that just about directly contradicted its findings: “Report Reaffirms Academic Gains for D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Participants.” The statement itself acknowledged parenthetically points that were in boldface in the report itself, but Spellings still argued that “no one in a position of responsibility can sever this lifeline right now and leave these kids adrift in schools that are not measuring up—not when they have chosen to create a better future for themselves.”

This is how conservatives “help” us poor African Americans, by offering false choices between privatized education, paid for with public dollars but run by people with little accountability to the public or to the values of the broad spectrum taxpayers whose dollars are being spent, and public education in which children are “adrift.”

Now, it is true that perhaps the chief reason conservatives get away with this is because too many D.C. public schools are bad—victims of mismanagement; political gamesmanship and grandstanding; and too many apathetic or dispirited teachers and staff. Parents who care about the quality of their children’s education will do just about anything to avoid exposing them to this dysfunctional stew.

But every time conservatives want to chain beleaguered parents to false choices in education, those parents need to hear loud and clear that there is a better way.

A group led by the Economic Policy Institute is arguing that we need a smart, holistic program to transform public education. The $18 million that conservatives want to siphon off into private schools could be used to address the conditions that keep children from learning effectively. That money could, for example, support pre-school programs that are proven to make children more likely to succeed in grade school. It could help pay for meal or health programs. It could help fund community programs and family services that have a positive impact on children when they are out of school.

The “Bold Approach coalition does not use rhetoric about black children in “the back of the bus,” but its plan has more of the elements of what is needed to bring transformative change in African-American communities precisely because it aims to improve the community factors that support a good education.

The conservative regime’s implementation of the No Child Left Behind law has left us with an obsession with test scores, an atmosphere of intimidation, and a cottage industry of people vested in a continued exodus from, and disintegration of, the public school system. It will take some hard, thoughtful work to develop the combination of federal policy, community support and local accountability that will improve parental confidence in our urban public schools. But a good first step would be for the House Appropriation Committee to move away from using tax dollars on educational placebos like the misnamed “opportunity scholarship” school voucher program.