Bipartisan Effort to Revive DC Voucher Program

Published March 29, 2011

Legislation to restore funding for the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program is moving through Congress, with key committees in the House and Senate holding hearings in recent weeks.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) presided over a hearing in February on the impact of the program. Lieberman, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted early on he usually tries “to see the argument on both sides, … but I can’t,” referring to opposition toward the voucher program.

Collins called the previous Congress’s phase-out of the scholarships an “unfortunate decision” that is “disappointing and shortsighted.”  

Lieberman, along with Collins, Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and John Ensign (R-NV) are sponsoring the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR) Act, which would reauthorize the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program through 2016-17.

Program Would Be Expanded

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in January introduced a companion bill in the House, which will likely be the only bill the Speaker sponsors this year.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census, and the National Archives, convened a hearing in March to take testimony from parents and students who say they benefited from the scholarship program.

According to John Schilling, chief operating officer of the American Federation for Children in Washington, DC, Boehner’s bill would ensure the continuation of the scholarships for at least five more years.

“SOAR would reauthorize the highly successful DC Opportunity Scholarship Program for five years, allow new students to enter the program, modestly increase scholarship amounts, create a sibling preference, and reinstate a robust program evaluation,” Schilling explained.

“In addition to the reauthorization of the OSP, both bills would continue funding for DC public schools and public charter schools as part of the three-sector federal initiative for educational improvement in the District of Columbia,” he continued.

Scholarships ‘Vital Component’

Launched in 2004, the DCOSP provides scholarships up to $7,500 for low-income children in the nation’s capital to attend a private school of their choice. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) inserted language in a 2009 omnibus-spending bill preventing new enrollments, effectively phasing out the program.
Andrew Campanella, president of the Campanella Group, a media firm focusing exclusively on education reform, says the scholarships are popular among District residents.

“The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is a vital component of education reform in the District, which is one of the reasons that 74 percent of District residents support congressional reauthorization,” Campanella said, noting a long waiting list with at least four applicants for every available scholarship.

“The program yields dramatic increases in student graduation rates and parental satisfaction, and enjoys the support of leaders from both political parties. We now see lawmakers in other states and localities trying in replicate the success of the OSP and other school choice programs this year by attempting to create their own opportunity scholarship programs,” Campanella said.

Vouchers Boosted Performance

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has led to significant increases in educational attainment. A federally mandated evaluation of the program found students who received a voucher and used it to attend private school had a 91 percent graduation rate, compared to 70 percent of their peers with a similar demographic profile.

By contrast, academic achievement in Washington, DC Public Schools is poor—the District ranks last in the nation on most measures of academic achievement.

The DCOSP has also eased parental concerns about student safety. During the 2007–2008 school year, 912 incidents of violent crime were reported from District public schools to the DC Metropolitan Police Department, versus 28 violent incidents reported from DC private schools.

‘Height of Irony’
At $12 million, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is a tiny fraction of the $780 million budget allocated for DC Public Schools, and the $64 billion Department of Education discretionary budget.

Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, notes some irony in the hostility toward the DCOSP from President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and senators such as Durbin.

“It’s the height of irony that the Obama administration wants to increase overall federal education spending despite overwhelming evidence that such spending does no good, but kill perhaps the only federal education program to ever demonstrate real, positive returns,” McCluskey said.

‘They Need Options Now’

Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice, was instrumental in the creation of the scholarship program and has testified in favor of the current House and Senate legislation.

“The Lieberman/Boehner reauthorization bill is bringing hope to District low-income families who only want the very best for their children. They cannot wait any longer for DC school reform efforts to bring about change. They need options now,” said Walden Ford.

“The DCOSP has provided more than 3,000 families a chance to enroll their children in quality educational environments, but so many more need and desire this same chance. The reauthorization of the DCOSP will allow more children the opportunity to receive a quality education and have a successful future,” Walden Ford concluded.

Studies by the American Federation for Children and the Heritage Foundation estimate 85 percent of the students currently benefiting from DCOSP would be compelled to return to underperforming public schools if Congress fails to reauthorize the program.

The bills are S 206 and HR 471.

Lindsey M. Burke ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC