Current polls show public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of saving the besieged low-income voucher program in the nation’s capital.
A survey of 1,001 registered District of Columbia voters, released July 28, confirmed support for education reform in general and the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program in particular. Founded in 2003, the federally funded program offers $7,500 in private school tuition assistance for students from families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
Of those surveyed, 68 percent said they oppose efforts to end the voucher program. Among parents of school-age children, that opinion rises to 79 percent.
“The opportunity scholarships are clearly supported by voters in DC,” said Paul DiPerna, director of partner services for the Indiana-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, one of nine groups that worked together to release the poll.
A one-year extension funded the scholarship program through 2008-09, but some leaders in Congress are seeking to pull the plug. As a compromise, President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan allowed the more-than-1,700 current recipients to continue with tuition assistance, but they revoked scholarships from 216 prospective students and said no more would be offered.
“Unfortunately, as we head into the new school year, the Obama administration has not yet reversed its decision to withdraw scholarships from the approximately 200 students who had recently been admitted to the program, setting the program on track to slowly phase out over time,” said Dan Lips, a senior education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
A majority of DC voters told pollsters the program isn’t serving enough students. Sixty-one percent said it was very important to give out enough scholarships to meet the demand among low-income families. Nearly 8,000 applications have been received since the program was enacted in 2003.
“The people have spoken,” DiPerna said. “They’re [voting] with their feet, and parents are making the best decisions for their kids.”
Split in Congress
Lips says Congress has not been swayed by the program’s popularity and the approval of the DC City Council. “The strong support in the District community hasn’t yet shifted the political dynamics on Capitol Hill,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced legislation to terminate the program altogether. A bipartisan coalition led by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has proposed reauthorizing the program for five years and increasing the scholarship amounts.
“We do hope Congress continues the Opportunity Scholarship Program as part of the three-sector reform effort,” said Elizabeth Plant, executive director of the nonprofit group DC Children First.
The other sectors of reform are the city’s charter schools and Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s efforts to transform DC Public Schools. In the July survey, 74 percent of respondents expressed a favorable view of charter schools. Rhee, who told Congress in July she supports the vouchers as part of an overall reform effort, registered a personal approval rating of 62 percent, including 27 percent who strongly approved.
Eager for Change
DC School Reform Now Executive Director Anne Martin says the across-the-board increase in support for Rhee has yet to overcome the long-entrenched skepticism among the lower-income groups eligible to receive the scholarships.
“There are just pockets of DC where this generational poverty has existed and the school system has failed them,” said Martin. “You can understand the hesitation they have toward someone new coming in and saying we’re going to change your schools.”
Plant, whose group cosponsored an August 20 vigil at the U.S. Department of Education in support of saving the 216 repealed scholarships, said demand for vouchers among DC’s neediest population remains strong.
“Many of these families still want very much to get into that program,” Plant said. “Some of the families want their student to go in with a sibling who’s already on a scholarship.”
Martin sees a similar sentiment. “The parents are very eager for change,” she said.
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a think tank based in Golden, Colorado.
For more information …
“Fork In The Road: Where Does the District Go in K-12 Education?” Braun Research, Inc., July 2009: http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/downloadFile.do?id=375