WASHINGTON (CNS) — Educational advocates from across the political divide came together in Washington Jan. 29 for the Put Kids First rally, part of National School Choice Week.

The event coincided with National Catholic Schools Week.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., spoke about the importance of educational opportunity for all. “We need to empower every single child — no matter where they come from — to have the best education and the best future.”

Cantor said the District of Columbia was proof that school choice works. Nearly half of the public school students in the district attend public charter schools. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program also funds private school tuition for low-income families. Students in the program have a 90 percent graduation rate.

“Let’s make this a model for what the rest of the country can do,” Cantor said.

The Archdiocese of Washington has praised the efforts of the scholarship program. “OSP levels the playing field for low-income families in the district by giving them access to great schools,” Tom Burnford, the archdiocese’s secretary for education, told Catholic News Service Jan. 30.

Several Catholic organizations were among the groups participating in the Put Kids First rally, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Education, the DC Catholic Conference, and the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium.

“The Holy Father has just spoken about how much good Catholic schools have done,” said Mary Ellen Hrutka, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium. “We need to make schools available so that their good work can continue.”

Be it public, parochial or home school, parental choice in education is supported by Catholic social teaching.

Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education, told CNS that “giving the parent the right to choose where their child attends school is in keeping with the Catholic understanding of human dignity.”

The Put Kids First rally was held at Friendship Chamberlain Elementary, a public charter school. Students from Friendship and other public charter and private schools filled the auditorium, wearing yellow “School Choice Week” scarves over their uniforms.

Former WNBA player and four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie flew from California to attend. “I went to the only school in my ZIP code, because that was my option,” Leslie told students. Despite a 3.7 GPA and many scholarship offers, she struggled with the standardized tests required for college.

Leslie encouraged students in the audience to make the most of their opportunities. “This is not just a fight for all of us adults — you have to do your part.”

Rally-goers were treated to performances by the Friendship Chamberlain Marching Band and the Dupont Park Adventist School Boys Choir. After lunch, students and attendees went to Capitol Hill to speak with their representatives in Congress about school choice.

When asked what she would tell her congressman, 12-year-old Briana Williams of Calvary Christian Academy said: “It is a great opportunity to get to choose your school.”