President George W. Bush celebrated the enactment of the first federally funded school voucher program before an audience of students, parents, and local luminaries at the Archbishop Carroll High School of Washington DC, one of the schools that intends to serve local students in the new program.
The President called it “an historic moment for education–the first time ever where the federal government has recognized that school choice is a viable alternative for parents.” He also took the opportunity to tout the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as an initiative that empowers those at the local level.
The five-year pilot voucher program will provide approximately 2,000 low-income District of Columbia students with annual vouchers worth up to $7,500 to cover private school tuition and transportation. Priority will be given to those students currently enrolled in a public school deemed failing by the DC school district.
The protracted Congressional battle over the voucher measure–which was signed into law in January–has required the Department of Education to switch into high gear to ensure the program can be implemented for the upcoming school year as required.
John Butler, president of Archbishop Carroll High School, told School Reform News the late start may make it difficult for some schools to participate in the inaugural year of the program or limit the number of voucher students they initially accept.
“We hope to serve at least 25 students this year, but lots of things have yet to be worked out,” Butler said. “The entity that will administer the program has not yet been selected, and the recruitment and lottery strategies have not been crafted yet in final form.”
But Butler is excited about the potential of the program.
“We’ve had an opportunity over the years to learn how to deliver a quality education,” he said. “We know how to serve students from the same neighborhoods where these [voucher] students will likely be coming from. If we can assume good success this year, we will be eager to open up more seats in the future.”
The Archdiocese of Washington, which likely will provide the bulk of the first available and affordable private school options for DC students, has said it hopes to make about 1,200 seats available in school year 2004-2005, mostly in elementary schools.
Efforts by opponents of the measure would keep those seats and seats in other private schools vacant and out of reach for most voucher-eligible DC families. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) have announced they will work to repeal the DC voucher provision by trying to shift the funds appropriated for it to the District’s public schools.
President Bush and Secretary of Education Roderick Paige, however, are already looking toward expansion of the pilot program to other U.S. cities. They hope to follow the DC school voucher win with a $50 million Congressional appropriation next fiscal year to fund additional school choice programs elsewhere in the nation; the same proposal failed to win congressional support in 2003.
Paige was among those joining Bush in addressing the crowd at Archbishop Carroll, as was the president of DC Parents for School Choice, Virginia Walden Ford, who said that overall the event was “effective … parents and other interested parties called us all weekend to say they felt that the President cared about the needs of their children.”
The “several hundred people in the audience got a chance to see that this administration really is working hard to make sure that education reform continues to be a priority,” she added.
Kelly Amis Stewart is an education writer and consultant. Her email address is [email protected].