My youngest child attends a District of Columbia public school. It is a magical place, led by an inspired principal and taught by caring and capable teachers. (When she said goodbye to her amazing kindergarten teacher last year, I sadly thought: After this, everything all the way up through Princeton will be pretty much a disappointment to her.)

But our school is not typical. In fact, the District public school system may be the worst in the United States. It is certainly the most expensive, spending nearly $25,000 per enrolled student, if all sources of funding are counted.

The system is unabashedly run in the interests not of students but of its unionized employees. One study found that more than one-quarter of District teachers (as opposed to only one-fifth of District families generally) enroll their children in private schools.

The District’s energetic mayor, Adrian Fenty, has appointed a bold reformer, Michelle Rhee, as school superintendent. She’s doing her utmost to institute improvements, offering teachers substantial pay raises if they will surrender tenure and seniority rights. All District parents hope she will succeed in attracting better teachers and eliminating bad ones.

But success takes time, a luxury that individual students in the system cannot afford. If a child lags behind in reading by the end of third grade, she’s probably never going to catch up—and her life chances will narrow tragically as a result. Those District parents who lack the luck or resources to live in the catchment areas for the few good schools need a solution for their first- and second-graders now, not five years from now.

The last Republican Congress—the one evicted in 2006—provided just such a solution: a District pilot program that provides needy students with vouchers usable at area private and religious schools. Currently 1,800 District children receive vouchers of $7,500 each. The beneficiaries of these vouchers have been extended a chance at a quality education regardless of their ability to pay. A rigorous independent study of the program finds that it substantially improves reading achievement among participants.

This successful program, however, incites the implacable hatred of the teachers unions. Last month, Democrats in Congress devised a cunningly opaque maneuver to kill it; they mandated that the program be reauthorized before any new funds are appropriated. Even in Washington, D.C., only a slim minority of parents understand the difference between an authorization (which enables action) and an appropriation (which funds it). But they will soon know this: Democrats in Congress just closed the escape hatch from a soul-destroying, dysfunctional educational bureaucracy.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to Washington with claims to be a reformer. The destruction of the voucher program by Congress was his first test. He flunked.

Rather than stop—or at least resist—the termination of the voucher program, Duncan accelerated it. Confessing compassionate concern that students might suffer from uncertainty over the program’s future, he announced this past week that no new students will be admitted—even though the program has sufficient funds to run for another year. Two hundred applicants just received rejection letters, which arrived after the deadline for application to most District charter schools.

As for those students currently enrolled, their hopes, too, have suddenly turned dim. They will receive the program’s benefits for one more year. Then they, too, must either return to the public system or pay the full cost of escape.

It’s impossible to invent any justification for this abandonment of students struggling to overcome the already steep odds against them. But there’s no mystery as to the motive. Called upon to choose between the demands of politically active unions or the life chances of the most vulnerable citizens, the Obama Education department put the unions first. That is tragic news for those needy kids—and an ominous revelation of the new administration’s priorities.