D.C. School Choice Eligibility Expansion Receives Bipartisan Support in Congress

Published October 1, 2006

U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) introduced legislation in July to amend the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program to allow participating families to remain in it even if their incomes rise above the limit of the original legislation.

The scholarship program, enacted by Congress in 2004, provides tuition scholarships worth up to $7,500 to approximately 1,700 Washington, DC students to attend private schools.

To be eligible, students’ families must have incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Once a child is enrolled, he or she can stay on scholarship as long as his family’s income remains below 200 percent of the poverty line.

Brownback’s proposal would raise the income cap for children already participating in the program to 300 percent of the poverty line. The income guidelines for children entering the program would remain the same.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is supporting Brownback’s proposal.

Two Thoughts

The measure’s supporters say it’s needed to allow families to remain in the program and preserve its validity in federally mandated academic effectiveness evaluations. Critics charge expanding the income limits undermines the program’s purpose of helping low-income families.

Sally Sachar, president of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit organization that administers the program, explained why the change is necessary.

“Under the current income guidelines, some students will lose their scholarships due to relatively small increases in their household incomes,” Sachar said. “Without the legislative change, these families will have to remove their children from their new educational settings because they cannot afford tuition.”

Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting delegate representing the District of Columbia in Congress, opposes Brownback’s proposal. She argues allowing families whose incomes rise dramatically to remain in the program is outside the original purpose of the law and harms the evaluation.

In a July 18 statement directed to Brownback and Landrieu, Norton said, “Some senators seem determined to raise the income limit, even if it means that the program being evaluated is no longer the low-income program the statute mandates.” She suggested the legislation would result in an unfair situation for some District residents.

“This amendment guarantees that unsubsidized low- and modest-income families struggling on their own to send their children to Catholic and other religious schools in the District of Columbia will find their children in the same schools with subsidized voucher children,” Norton said.

Little Change

Sachar said the proposed change wouldn’t significantly alter who benefits from the scholarship program.

“If the income eligibility limit is raised,” Sachar explained, “the average household income for scholarship students would increase only slightly, from the current average of $21,100–106 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of four–to approximately $22,600–113 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of four.”

Other supporters say the change must be made to protect the validity of the federally mandated academic evaluation of the scholarship program.

“This is one of the few federal programs that is being evaluated using a rigorous evaluation,” explained Nina Rees, a consultant to the Alliance for School Choice. “Sen. Brownback’s intent was to ensure that the study’s integrity was not being compromised so early in the process [due to too many students being forced out of the program].”

The results of the initial academic evaluation–measuring test scores of comparison groups of private school and public school students that entered a lottery for scholarships–will be released next year.

In 2005, Georgetown University researchers released the first report studying the D.C. voucher program’s impact. The report, based on focus group discussions with participating families, found parents and students alike were “very satisfied” with their experience in the scholarship program.

Practical Step

In addition to protecting the federally mandated academic evaluation, Rees said the proposed changes are a fair, practical remedy.

“As a matter of principle, sound public policy programs should not discriminate against work and marriage, and they should always have a cost-of-living adjustment,” Rees explained. “So in this respect, the Brownback fix helps to keep in the program more children whose families are simply trying to make ends meet.”

In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed Brownback’s measure, including it in Congress’s budget for the District of Columbia to be considered by the full Senate this fall.

Its prospects for implementation this year, Rees said, “are very good, especially given Sen. Landrieu’s support.”

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

For more information …

Washington Scholarship Fund, http://www.dcscholarships.org/