DC Opportunity Scholarship Program’s Future in Question

Published October 1, 2007

About 1,800 children in Washington, DC headed to private schools in August using tuition scholarships provided through the DC Opportunity Scholarship fund. But whether those scholarships will be available in future years is questionable, as the program’s legislative future is in doubt on Capitol Hill.

The DC Opportunity Scholarship program has been providing low-income students private school scholarships since 2004, when President George W. Bush signed into law the federal DC School Choice Incentive Act.

According to the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF), the nonprofit group that administers the program, nearly 6,500 students have applied for scholarships over the past three years, or about three applicants for each scholarship slot.

Reauthorization Battle

But the legislation must be reauthorized in the 110th Congress for the program to continue. Most of the members of the new Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives opposed the legislation when it was first proposed.

“I think there’s very little chance that, when this runs out, it will be renewed,” commented Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District in Congress. “I have said to [WSF] that I think the only responsible thing to do is to prepare the parents to understand that the program is unlikely to be funded, that it was experimental, it was never meant to be permanent.”

Committed Parents

Program supporters were disappointed by Norton’s comments. Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of the advocacy group DC Parents for School Choice, which pressed for the program in 2004, said Norton hasn’t reached out to parents to see how the program is benefiting their children.

“Del. Norton needs to talk to parents,” Walden Ford said. “Parents with children in the program are thrilled about the new opportunities in private school. They are so happy to have their children in safe and high-quality schools.”

Those parents, Walden Ford noted, are preparing to make their voices heard in the looming Congressional debate over reauthorization.

“We’re already having meetings with parents,” Walden Ford said. “We know that we need to get the word out about how the program is helping these children. That’s the key. Parents have already begun meeting with the offices of senators and representatives. We’re going there to introduce ourselves and to introduce members of Congress to parents so they can hear how the program is changing children’s lives.”

Intense Debate

John Schilling, director of national projects at the DC-based Alliance for School Choice, hopes Congress will continue the program.

“The [Opportunity Scholarship Program] is doing exactly what its local sponsors intended,” Schilling said, “and that is to provide educational opportunity to some of the District’s low-income parents whose children have been denied that opportunity for years.

“Beyond enjoying overwhelming parental support,” Schilling added, “[the program] is undergoing a rigorous federal evaluation to demonstrate effectiveness. The program also generates millions in additional federal money for DC public and charter schools as part of a three-sector approach to educational improvement.”

Schilling said intense lobbying on both sides will take place this fall and winter. The Alliance for School Choice is just one of several groups planning to advocate on children’s behalf.

“There are currently 1,800 students in OSP whose average family income is $21,000 per year,” Schilling said. “It is these courageous families, along with dedicated local business, policy, and community leaders, who are driving this debate and building support on Capitol Hill. Their passion and commitment will make the difference.”

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.