President Proposes Expanding DC School Voucher Program

Published April 1, 2008

President George W. Bush’s 2009 budget request for the federal government, released in February, includes a proposal to boost federal funding for the Washington, DC school system by $32 million, including a $5 million hike for the DC Opportunity Scholarship program–the citywide voucher program for low-income students.

The proposed budget increase for schools in the nation’s capital signaled the Bush administration’s commitment to extending the DC School Choice Incentive Act program. Signed into law in 2003, the federal legislation authorized the creation of a new $13 million school voucher program for low-income students living in the District of Columbia.

The program also included an additional $13 million funding grant each for the traditional public schools budget and the charter schools budget.

The DC Opportunity Scholarship program, which currently helps more than 1,900 disadvantaged students attend private schools, faces an uncertain future on Capitol Hill.

Leading congressional Democrats, including DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, oppose the program and recommend its discontinuation. The program is due for reauthorization this year.

Working Well

John Schilling, chief of staff and director of national projects for the DC-based Alliance for School Choice, applauded the Bush administration’s proposed budget for DC schools.

“Boosting the funding levels for DC Public Schools, public charter schools, and the Opportunity Scholarship Program will help all three sectors and aid these reform efforts,” Schilling said. “The increased funding is especially important for the scholarship program.

“This is a program that is working phenomenally well for nearly 2,000 very low-income children and enjoys overwhelming parental satisfaction,” Schilling noted, “yet [it] receives significantly less funding than DCPS or charter schools.”

Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said the budget proposal is a mixed blessing. Coulson called the modest funding increase for the District’s school voucher program a “great thing,” since it will “bring the option of independent schooling within reach of more low-income families.”

Funding Imbalance

But Coulson lamented the funding increases for the traditional public school system.

“The budget for the District’s public schools will also be rising substantially, and that will put the voucher schools at an even greater financial disadvantage than is currently the case,” Coulson noted, pointing out the current scholarship amount of $7,500 for private school tuition was well below per-pupil spending in the District’s public schools.

“That huge funding discrimination against the independent voucher schools, coupled with the program’s very small size, will continue to limit its impact. And as long as its impact is limited, it will remain politically vulnerable,” Coulson continued.

Continuing Education

Schilling expects the Bush administration to press hard to ensure the Opportunity Scholarship program is maintained.

“The administration has made it clear that they fully support the program and will fight hard for it,” Schilling said, noting Bush specifically mentioned it in his State of the Union address in January.

Schilling is optimistic others will join Bush in supporting the voucher program’s continuation, noting, “Mayor [Adrian] Fenty and Chancellor [Michelle] Rhee have both expressed their support for the three-sector federal funding initiative, which includes continuation of the scholarship program.

“This is a program started by local leaders and parents, a program that has proven to be successful, and one where demand outpaces supply by nearly four to one,” Schilling continued.

“When the time comes for Congress to consider reauthorizing this program,” Schilling predicted, “they will be facing an army of committed parents fighting to ensure that their children have the same educational opportunity as their higher-income peers.”

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