White House Proposes National Opportunity Scholarship Initiative

Published July 1, 2006

This spring, the Bush administration proposed an initiative to give thousands of underprivileged children in failing public schools the option to attend private school. A report from the U.S. Department of Education released in February found more than 2,100 public schools have failed to meet adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) for five or more years.

President George W. Bush’s 2007 budget proposal includes funds for the America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids initiative. The $100 million program would provide school vouchers to children in schools in the “restructuring” phase of NCLB. Schools eligible for restructuring are those that have failed to meet adequate yearly progress standards for six or more consecutive years.

The plan calls for the Department of Education to award grants to local organizations that agree to distribute opportunity scholarships to qualifying public school students.

Hundreds of thousands of children across the nation would be eligible to participate; estimates suggest the program could serve as many as 23,000 students. Participating children would receive either a $4,000 scholarship for private school tuition, or $3,000 for supplemental educational services or after-school tutoring. The program requires congressional authorization and appropriation, which was pending at press time.

Meeting a Growing Need

The Department of Education reports 1,065 schools currently qualify as “restructuring” under No Child Left Behind. Next year, as many as 1,000 additional schools may also qualify.

Townsend McNitt, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education, explained the Opportunity Scholarship initiative was designed to meet the growing need for more school choices under NCLB.

“As more and more schools enter the restructuring phase, we believed that it was important to expand upon the existing parental choice components of No Child Left Behind,” McNitt said.

“It could take a few years for a public school to go through the restructuring process. During that time, families deserve options,” McNitt explained. Under NCLB, failing schools are legally required to tell parents about their option to transfer their children to better-performing public schools in the district, and to provide after-school tutoring to students through other providers. “But for families with children assigned to these schools, we wanted to provide the most aggressive choice possible–the choice of a private school, as well as intensive tutoring instruction.”

Restructuring Thousands of Schools

A May report from The Heritage Foundation found hundreds of thousands of children are currently enrolled in schools that will soon be due for restructuring. Many are located in large school districts. For instance, New York City has 167 schools due for restructuring, according to Department of Education estimates. Those schools enroll approximately 125,000 students.

In Illinois, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced in May that 185 schools are scheduled for restructuring–nearly one-third of the city’s public schools. At least 121,000 students are estimated to be enrolled in these schools. Some schools will be closed, while others will undergo curriculum and staffing changes. CPS chose to embrace the minimum restructuring options allowed under the law. Chicago would be an example of a school district where children could benefit if the Opportunity Scholarship program is implemented.

For school choice advocates, the Opportunity Scholarship initiative represents a historic opportunity.

“Millions of children are being denied the parental choice options that are promised to them under No Child Left Behind,” explained Matthew Ladner, director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice in Arizona. “The America’s Opportunity Scholarship for Kids initiative would provide real school choice to thousands of children attending persistently failing schools. For these children, scholarships will mean the path to a quality education and a brighter future.”

Showing Need for Choice

In addition to helping students currently trapped in failing schools in large urban districts, Ladner said, the new initiative could demonstrate why all children need choices nationwide.

“If passed,” Ladner said, “the Opportunity Scholarship program could lead to future student-centered reforms at the federal level.”

Backers recognize the Opportunity Scholarship proposal faces an uphill battle on Capitol Hill. In 2002, in the first NCLB proposal, the Bush administration included a school voucher plan for children in failing schools, but it was removed early in the legislative process. But choice proponents say congressmen should find it difficult to deny choices to students who are stuck in chronically failing schools for six years.

“It took four or five years to pass the D.C. opportunity scholarship program,” McNitt explained. (The program offers low-income parents up to $7,500 in scholarship funds for children to attend private elementary or high schools.) “But the dynamics are a bit different for this proposal because we’re talking about restructuring schools [that are long-term underperformers under NCLB]. We’re hopeful that this will move more quickly. There has already been some interest on Capitol Hill.”

Pressuring Legislators

School choice supporters agree the Opportunity Scholarship program would put additional pressure on lawmakers, because it is geared to serve underprivileged children in persistently underperforming schools.

“Members of Congress need to know that thousands of children in their district are trapped in public schools that have failed for six or more years. How can they not support a new program to give these children the opportunity to attend better schools?” Ladner asked. “How much longer do these kids have to wait?”

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education analyst with The Heritage Foundation, a public policy think tank in Washington, DC.

For more information …

The Heritage Foundation’s report on the America’s Opportunity Scholarship for Kids initiative is available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg1939.cfm.