The 5Ws of the DC School Choice Incentive Act

Published March 1, 2004

In the journalistic tradition of the 5Ws (plus one “H”), here are the basics of the school voucher program for the District of Columbia that Congress included in its omnibus appropriations act of 2004 and that President George W. Bush signed into law:

Who: At least 1,700 children who reside in the District and whose family income does not exceed 185 percent of the poverty line. Those who attend public schools identified as in need of improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act will receive top priority.

What: Vouchers in an amount depending on financial need but not to exceed $7,500 to go toward tuition, fees, and transportation costs, if any, for a child to attend a private elementary or secondary school within the District.

When: The first voucher students will enroll this fall. Congress authorized the program for five years.

Where: Private schools in the District that decide to participate in the program. The legislation deems parents, not the participating schools, as recipients of federal funds. Participating schools that are religious are allowed to retain their religious character through hiring practices, teaching mission, and use of symbols and names. In addition, parents may choose, and schools may offer, single-sex instruction.

There are, however, a number of requirements for participating schools.

  • They may not discriminate against applicants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex, and if there are more applicants than spaces available, they must accept voucher students via a process of random selection.
  • They must cooperate with an independent evaluation of the program’s effectiveness.
  • They must make annual reports to parents of voucher students on safety and academic performance.
  • They may not charge voucher students higher tuition or fees than they charge other students.

A private school also must be able to demonstrate that it is “financially responsible” in order to participate.

Why: Findings of Congress in Section 302, Title III, lay out succinctly why the DC School Choice Incentive Act has come into being. Here are some of the main reasons:

“Parents are best equipped to make decisions for their children, including the educational setting that will best serve the interests and educational needs of their child.

“For many parents in the District of Columbia, public school choice provided for under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, as well as under other public school choice programs, is inadequate due to capacity constraints. Available educational alternatives to the public schools are insufficient and more educational options are needed. In particular, funds are needed to assist low-income parents to exercise choice among enhanced public opportunities and private educational environments, whether religious or nonreligious …”

The findings additionally point out that upwards of three-fourths of DC public school students have been scoring “below basic” on the math and reading tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A lower percentage of DC students reach grade-level proficiency than students in any of the 50 states.

How: The U.S. Secretary of Education (Rod Paige) will take applications from organizations interested in running the voucher program. To be eligible, an organization must be an “educational entity” of the District, a nonprofit group, or a consortium of such groups. The Secretary will consult with the Mayor of the District (Anthony Williams) in choosing from among the applications. The Secretary and Mayor also will jointly select an independent authority to evaluate annually the performance of voucher students. Once chosen, the program administrator will let parents know how they can apply for the school-choice aid.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

A more detailed explanation is available at the Web site of the Council for American Private Education, The site also has a link to the full text of the DC School Choice Incentive Act of 2003.