In a significant—and unexpected—victory for low-income families in the nation’s capital, the long-term continuing federal budget resolution Republican leaders brokered with President Obama included language to reauthorize and expand the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program.
As part of a package of compromises that included around $20 billion in new spending cuts, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) included language from the Students for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which he had introduced in January.
The DCOSP provides annual vouchers of $7,500 to low-income children to attend a private school of their choice. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) inserted language into a 2009 omnibus spending bill to bar any new students from receiving funding. Congress had established the program in 2004 to provide children with an alternative to the city’s underperforming, unsafe public school system.
The DC Public Schools rank 51st in the nation in terms of academic achievement and first in terms of school violence.
The budget resolution reauthorizes the voucher program for five years, ensuring low-income students will continue to receive scholarships and removing any uncertainty those students already in the program felt.
The bill expands the program’s funding to $20 million a year from $13 million a year.
Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice, noted the life-changing impact the scholarships have had on participating students.
“The reauthorization of the DCOSP means the District’s low-income children will continue to have an opportunity to attend schools their parents have chosen which meet their educational needs,” she said.
“DCOSP has changed many children’s lives and the lives of their parents by giving them the tools to succeed in the future,” Walden Ford said. “Parents are delighted that it will continue and provide more children with the chance to receive a quality education,” Ford noted.
White House Reversed Course
The president’s acquiescence to reviving the only federally funded school voucher program came just one week after the White House released a policy statement opposing it.
“Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement. The Administration strongly opposes expanding the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students,” the administration said in the statement issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget. “Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that the DC program has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in DC.”
A five-year annual evaluation commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education showed the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program succeeded in raising achievement and providing safer academic environments. Students who received a voucher and used it to attend private school had a 91 percent graduation rate. Graduation rates in DC Public Schools stand at just 55 percent.
Walden Ford said the sudden approval of the SOAR Act came as a surprise and a relief after years of activism. “After more than a decade of fighting to ensure that low-income children get the education they deserve, for me, personally, it is incredibly fulfilling and exciting,” she said.
Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.