Congress Contemplates Future of DC Vouchers

Published January 1, 2009

The arrival of a new Congress and administration is casting doubt over the future of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federally funded school choice program serving disadvantaged students in the nation’s capital.

The scholarship program—administered by the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF)—served more than 1,900 children from low-income families during the 2007-08 school year, its fourth year of operation. Families accepted into the program can send their children to the private schools of their choice, using scholarships worth up to $7,500 per student.

Since its inception, approximately 7,200 students have applied to participate, representing about four applicants for every available scholarship.

Poor Public School Performance

The high demand for school choice in the District should come as no surprise to those familiar with the DC public school system, home to some of the worst-performing public schools in the country. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test, only 31 percent of DC eighth-graders scored “basic” in math, compared with 68 percent nationally in 2007.

Only 45 percent of District students can read at a basic level, whereas nationally the number is above 70 percent. Only 59 percent of students in DC graduate high school.

These low achievement figures persist despite the District spending nearly $15,000 per student each year.

Empowered Parents

Poor performance in the public school system has created a natural constituency of parents pushing for the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the better circumstances it creates for their children.

In 2008, Congress voted to provide funding for the program for another school year, despite strong opposition from some leading voices on Capitol Hill. DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who strongly opposes the program, said in a June 9, 2008 Washington Post op-ed, “I can tell you that the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program.”

With expanded liberal majorities in Congress and a new, Democratic administration, Norton’s warning could come true, analysts say. Congress must reauthorize the program this session in order for funding to continue beyond the 2009-10 school year.

Failure to extend the program would result in many participating children returning to DC public schools. Since the average income of participating scholarship families is $22,736 for a family of four, few will be able to afford the tuition costs without the benefits of a scholarship.

Scary Prospect

According to Virginia Walden Ford, a school choice advocate and head of DC Parents for School Choice, the Opportunity Scholarship Program is providing hope and opportunity for families throughout the District.

“The Opportunity Scholarship Program has empowered parents by giving them the chance to get their children out of low-performing schools and send them to schools that meet their individual needs,” Walden Ford said. “We have seen that, when children are placed in nurturing educational environments, they succeed and their parents become active and involved. We’ve heard over and over that it would be devastating if this program were to end and parents would have to look for new schools for their children who are doing so well in the schools they are currently attending.

“The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has changed the educational direction of all the children involved,” Walden Ford continued. “When children are doing well in educational environments, because of expanded options for the families who have had no choice, we see happy endings—not only for the children but also their families and their communities.”

Satisfaction High

Ending the program would be unwelcome news to participating parents. Surveys have shown scholarship families have high levels of satisfaction with their children’s schools and increased feelings of student safety.

Sheila Jackson, whose daughter is in the program, told DC Parents for School Choice in November, “For the last two years my daughter has been in the scholarship program at a school I chose, and I see the transformation in my child. At 13, she is becoming a disciplined young lady who likes school. She feels safe. I feel relieved.”

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a research assistant in domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.