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More D.C. Voucher Shenanigans

Ever since the latest scandal at the U.S. Department of Education broke earlier this month, the department has been saying one thing and doing another. But even if the department's double talk allows voucher opponents to prevail, the double talk itself only proves that their days in power are numbered.

The original scandal was that the department kept secret vital information showing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program improves academic outcomes while Congress took a crucial vote on its future. When the department finally had to release the good news about vouchers, it tried to bury the facts under spin and obfuscation. And when that failed to keep the story out of the papers, it accused the Wall Street Journal of lying about how it withheld vital information from Congress. But an investigation quickly proved that it wasn't the Journal who was lying.

Now, the plot has thickened -- and so has the duplicity. With no legal basis for doing so, the department has preemptively declared the program dead by forbidding it to accept applications for the fall.

Never mind that Congress hasn't ended the program -- it voted to make next year's funding conditional on later votes of approval from itself and the D.C. Council. By forbidding anyone to apply for vouchers next year, with no legal basis for doing so since the program has not been ended by Congress, the department ensures that the program will end regardless of what Congress decides.

Never mind the law; the U.S. Department of Education does what it pleases. But then, voucher opponents have never been particularly scrupulous about their methods.

Adding insult to injury, the department has pretended that it's not killing the program even while killing it. The department sent voucher families a weasel-worded letter designed to create the impression that it's working to help save the voucher students even as it drives the knife into their backs. And the education secretary told the Chicago Tribune that he supposedly hasn't ruled out supporting the program, almost exactly at the same time his department was unilaterally shutting the program down.

The Tribune's editors were not amused at being treated like fools, and they called out the department and other voucher opponents on their double talk. So did the editors of the Washington Post. (Credit where it's due -- on this story, the Post's editors have been rock solid from day one, calling shenanigans on the department's behavior even before the story was hot.)

Pretending to do one thing in front of the cameras while secretly doing the exact opposite in smoke-filled rooms may produce a victory for voucher opponents in D.C. this year, but make no mistake. Vouchers are losing because they're winning. That is, they're losing in the short term because they're winning in the long term.

For five years now, the voucher movement has been getting steadily stronger and winning a long string of legislative victories nationwide. Last year was a great year for school choice -- three new programs were created and two were expanded. Since 2004, twelve new school choice programs have been created -- that's half of all the existing programs. And older programs have been consistently expanding.

That's why the hypocrisy and double-dealing of voucher opponents is really a result of the movement's extraordinary success. The stronger the voucher movement gets, the more its opponents must hide their shenanigans from public view in order to win any battles at all.

Five years ago, no politician who wanted to oppose vouchers would say he was "undecided" while doing his dirty work off camera. They just said they were against vouchers and fought to stop them right out in the open. Things are different now.

Vouchers may lose in D.C., but that doesn't mean they're not winning in the long term. Every successful movement loses some battles. Indeed, the more important the cause, the more we should expect the entrenched interests of the status quo to invest in fighting it off. That will inevitably mean some setbacks alongside the victories.

Where would we be today if Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail had just said, "Well, here I am in jail -- I guess I've lost the fight"? King knew he wasn't in jail because he was losing. He was in jail because he was winning.

And the cowards who put him in jail knew it just as well as he did.