DC Opportunity Program Faces Tough Reauthorization Battle

Published May 1, 2009

The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009, a $410 billion spending bill signed by President Barack Obama in March, will cancel the DC Opportunity Scholarship program unless it is reauthorized by Congress and authorized by the District of Columbia City Council.

Without those approvals, children in the District of Columbia will no longer be able to receive scholarships after the 2009-10 school year.

The program, created in 2004, currently provides scholarships worth up to $7,500 to more than 1,700 low-income children, serving families earning an average income of $22,300 per year. Since its inception the program has given scholarships to more than 3,000 students.

Language added to the omnibus bill by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) withholds future funding from the program unless it receives the required approvals. The program received $14 million for the 2008-09 academic year.

DoE Suppressed Information

Late in the afternoon of April 3, while media were busy covering a presidential town hall meeting, the Department of Education released the results of a study from last year showing the voucher recipients are doing at least as well in math as their public school counterparts and are reading at a half-grade level above the public school students.

Mainstream media and school choice advocates noted the department has known the results since last November but waited to release them until after Congress voted and Obama signed the law that will likely end the program. The Wall Street Journal reported Education Secretary Arne Duncan did not return calls seeking comment about the timing of the report’s release.

‘Tragic Situation’

Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), who offered an unsuccessful amendment to the omnibus bill that would have neutralized the language included by Durbin, fears students currently benefiting from the scholarship program will have to return to unsafe and underperforming public schools.

“Parents are lined up to give their children a better future through the DC Opportunity Scholarship,” said Ensign. “And why not? It’s a better education in a safe environment. For policymakers, it should have been just as simple because it’s also less expensive [than forcing those children into public schools]. As a result of the Democrats’ bill, students who chose to leave a failing school and attend a better, safer school will have to return to the school they decided to leave. This is such a tragic situation.”

Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice, agrees.

“As we talk with parents whose children receive Opportunity Scholarships, we find them concerned about what will happen to their children if the program does not continue,” Walden Ford said. “Most of our families live in areas that have some of the most troubled schools in the city. The thought of children having to go back into those schools horrifies the parents and the children.

“The Opportunity Scholarship Program has provided them with educational environments that have allowed them to have access to quality education opportunities. For them to have to start over again in schools that are not serving children well in areas of the city that are not always safe havens for kids would be devastating,” Walden Ford added.

Ripple Effects

Walden Ford believes the new requirements may kill the program.

“The prospect of getting reauthorization through Congress is not an easy task, nor is getting City Council approval for the program,” Walden Ford said. “It means that the siblings of the children who currently are enrolled or other disadvantaged children would not be able to have the same chances to be educated in an environment that parents have chosen and that they have seen work,” she noted.

School choice advocates worry elimination of the scholarship program will have harmful repercussions on school choice programs nationwide. As the only federally funded school choice program in the country, the program’s continuation is considered by some to be an indicator of how Washington feels about school choice. That adds urgency to the fight to make sure the program continues.

“The language in the omnibus appropriations bill is a step backwards, but it does not spell the end for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. Parents, families, and civic leaders are mobilized and ready to fight to see that this program isn’t just funded for existing students but expanded and reauthorized,” said Andrew Campanella, director of communications and marketing at the Alliance for School Choice. “Across the country, we are seeing strong bipartisan support for school choice initiatives. We are hopeful that the bipartisan spirit will come to DC when it comes to the future of this program.”

A congressional proposal to reauthorize the DC Opportunity Scholarship program is expected to be considered this spring.

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

For more information …

“Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Three Years,” by Patrick Wolf, et al., Institute of Education Sciences, March 2009: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20094050/pdf/20094050.pdf