Fight Underway to Save DC Voucher Program

Published September 1, 2009

In early July, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) convinced the Senate Appropriations Committee to send to the full Senate a bill that included an amendment he sponsored calling for complete elimination of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. But by the end of the month, a new bill aiming to save and strengthen the program had been introduced.

The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, introduced July 30 by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), George Voinovich (R-OH), Robert Byrd (D-WV), and John Ensign (R-NV), would reauthorize the program for five years. It also would increase scholarship amounts from $7,500 to $9,000 apiece for K-8 students and $11,000 for high school students—numbers still lower than the $13,000+ DC Public Schools spends on each student.

“This is not a liberal program or a conservative program, but a program that puts children first,” Lieberman said in introducing the bill. “And I am proud to say that it’s working.”

Empirical Evidence

Though three committee members reminded Durbin in early July of a recent U.S. Department of Education study showing empirical evidence the voucher program for children in the District of Columbia yields higher reading scores than for those of children left behind in public schools, and seven members of the DC City Council wrote a letter pleading with Congress to keep the program, Durbin simply claimed the program doesn’t work.

If the Senate passes Durbin’s bill in its current form, it will end the popular program completely after the 2009-10 school year and reduce voucher amounts for those scheduled to receive scholarships this fall.

“We have clear empirical evidence suggesting that the DC Opportunity Scholarship program is working,” said Dan Lips, a senior education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “Repeated federally mandated evaluations have found that participating parents are more satisfied with the safety and quality of their children’s schools. The bottom line is that the program is producing terrific results.”

Evidence of Success

In April, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan abruptly repealed the scholarships of 216 students who had been granted vouchers for private schools this fall, just one week after the list of recipients was announced.

The Obama administration promised to continue funding for current scholarship students through their high school graduations, but the program must be reauthorized by Congress in order to continue.

“At this point the Obama administration is supporting a plan that would hurt the DC Opportunity Scholarship program over time—preventing new students from receiving scholarships, but allowing current recipients to continue to get scholarships,” Lips said. “If the administration is serious about their plan to support programs that work, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program should be expanded to allow more kids to participate.”

National Implications

Attitudes displayed by the Obama administration and Congress about the DC voucher program have national implications. Saving the program has become a national effort, and a new coalition of groups with a Web site called has sprung up to do just that.

“Congressmen and -women from around the country will determine the fate of this successful program,” noted Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the coalition’s member groups. “Whether they listen to the voices of their constituents or the promises of their special-interest supporters depends on people from every corner of the United States reaching out to their representatives and senators in support. One resource that can help guide them is the Web site.”

Critics argue the scholarship program is problematic because it permits parents to use public funds to pay for tuition at religious academies. But that argument has been rejected over and over again—most notably by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“The Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After Three Years,” Institute of Education Sciences, March 2009: