Obama Administration Hesitantly Agrees to Continue D.C. Vouchers

Published June 18, 2012

Speaker of the House John Boehner and Sen. Joe Lieberman have reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to continue funding the endangered DC vouchers program.

The agreement means no cap on program enrollment, current students can continue participating, and new students can apply. A U.S. Department of Education spokesman sent School Reform News a statement from Education Secretary Arne Duncan explaining the department cannot conduct a Congress-mandated, statistically valid evaluation of the program without at least 85 more students enrolling for this fall. That’s approximately how many new enrollees the agreement will allow.

“The president and I are committed to ensuring that the education of the children currently in the DC Opportunity Scholarship program is not disrupted,” Duncan said. “Beyond that commitment, however, we remain convinced that our time and resources are best spent on reforming the public school system to benefit all students, and we look forward to working with Congress in a bipartisan manner to advance that goal.”

Even though he signed legislation expanding the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2011, President Obama zeroed out its funding in his February budget for 2013, and last year he attempted to do the same thing during debt ceiling negotiations. In May, presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney targeted the president’s opposition as “the one federal program [Democrats] are willing to cut,” touting the benefits it provides the overwhelmingly poor and minority participants. Romney said he supports expanding the OSP as “a model for parental choice programs across the nation.”

Approximately 1,600 children currently receive a DC voucher. According to past federally mandated evaluations of the OSP, 91 percent of recipients graduate high school. The graduation rate for DC Public Schools is 55 percent.

The scholarships, worth up to $8,000 for elementary students and $12,000 for high schoolers, are less than half the amount DC public schools spend per student, thus saving taxpayer money for each student enrolled in the program. Enrollment in 2011-2012 increased 60 percent over the year before, according to Boehner’s office.

“I am grateful that we have reached an agreement with the Department to fully implement the [Scholarships for Opportunity and Results] Act and the OSP program,” Lieberman (I-Connecticut) said in a statement. “This program provides a lifeline to many needy children.”

Image by David Silver.