In July the U.S. Congress debated the future of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program, the federal initiative helping 1,900 low-income students attend private schools in the nation’s capital.
Despite efforts by opponents to cut the program’s funding, committees in the Senate and House of Representatives voted to appropriate money for the program for another year.
On July 10 the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a District of Columbia budget that would continue funding for the program. The vote followed similar action by the House Appropriations Committee weeks earlier. If Congress approves the DC budget later this session, the scholarship program will be funded through the 2009-10 school year.
Seen as Victory
John Schilling, chief of staff and director of national projects for the Alliance for School Choice, said the votes marked a victory for parents and school choice supporters.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing is continued funding for the program,” Schilling said. Continuing funding through 2009-10 “sends a strong message that Congress understands how important the scholarship program is to the mayor, to the city, to the very low-income families it serves, and most importantly to the children fortunate enough to participate.”
Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice, a grassroots organization, also applauded the votes.
“This means that parents won’t have to worry about finding schools for their children through the 2009-10 school year, which eliminates a lot of stress,” Walden Ford said.
But supporters of the program worry the recent debate about its future raises questions about whether it will be renewed in 2009 and beyond. The Senate Appropriations Committee bill included language requiring the program to be reauthorized before receiving funding for the 2010-11 school year.
Walden Ford believes the uncertainty is affecting parents.
“Even though parents are willing and anxious to fight to ensure that the program is continued, many are now thinking ahead and looking for other opportunities for their children,” Walden Ford explained.
Schilling was optimistic Congress will have good reason to renew the program next year.
“It is imperative that the local coalition–which is fueled by the passion of parents–remain very active in reminding Congress how important this program is to low-income District families,” Schilling said.
Strong Parental Support
Schilling noted the program has attracted local support from DC leaders.
“The existence of the scholarship program is what generated additional federal investments in DC public schools and DC public charter schools,” Schilling explained. “Congress should continue to support the comprehensive reform efforts launched by Mayor [Adrian] Fenty and Chancellor [Michelle] Rhee, and that requires keeping all options on the table for the city’s parents.”
Walden Ford agrees maintaining choice options for DC families should be the central issue.
“It is heartbreaking since parents are so pleased with how their children are doing,” Walden Ford said. “Parents know that if the scholarship program ended, their children could wind up in a school that does not serve them well. The parents I’ve talked to feel like this would be devastating for their children and families.”
Dan Lips ([email protected]) is a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.