Key Facts Overlooked in Voucher-Program Report

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To the Editor:

Your Feb. 16, 2005, article "Report Takes Aim at First Year of D.C. Voucher Program" does not take several important facts into consideration. Nearly half of the students who received federally funded 2004-05 scholarships through the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, for example, came from low-performing schools.

The article states that, according to People for the American Way, fewer than 80 students who received the federally funded 2004-05 scholarships came from schools designated as “in need of improvement,” or SINI schools, in 2003. This number, however, takes into account only scholarship recipients from 2003 SINI schools. When the 2003 charter school SINI numbers are factored in, the number rises to 130.

This number does not tell the full story. Any school that fails to make adequate yearly progress in a given year in one of three categories—reading, math, or attendance—is considered a low-performing school. Two consecutive years of low performance in the same category results in SINI designation. Four hundred and fifteen scholarship recipients were attending low-performing schools in 2003 that became SINI schools in 2004. These 415 children were faced with attending a SINI school for the current (2004-05) school year, had they not received a scholarship. Another 54 scholarship recipients were attending low-performing schools in 2003 that did not become SINI schools in 2004.

Therefore, a total of 599 children, or 44 percent of the 1,360 scholarship recipients for 2004-05, came from low-performing schools. The schools-in-need-of-improvement process is an ongoing one that only started a couple of years ago. Its cumulative nature ensured that many more schools would be designated SINI in its second year than in its first. While relatively few schools were designated as in need of improvement in 2003, 105 schools were low-performing in 2003 (including the SINI schools). We’re very happy to have offered scholarships to 599 children who attended these 105 schools, and we expect this year’s numbers to be even more impressive.

The legislation that created this program gives priority to public school children. It is, and has always been, our goal to award scholarships exclusively to children from District of Columbia public schools, even though the legislation does not permit us to disqualify eligible students who are coming from private schools. Our efforts to reach all students, including those in public schools, were severely constrained in 2004-05, since we had less than three weeks to accept applications and simply were not able to execute the sort of community-based outreach that would have been necessary to attract an ideal number of public school applicants.

We are confident the extra time we have to accept applications in 2005-06 and working more closely with the District of Columbia’s state education office and others to reach out to eligible public school families will lead to a much higher number of eligible public school applicants. This, in turn, will push the number of private school students who receive scholarships close to zero.

People for the American Way cites several e-mails between the Washington Scholarship Fund and the U.S. Department of Education as examples of attempts to “obscure” the facts. In actuality, they are examples of the WSF working diligently with the department and other individuals key to the program’s launch to best design the program to meet the mandate of the legislation and to make sure our release of the information was done as clearly, as representatively, and as accurately as possible for the general public and policymakers.

People for the American Way has released a report that is unbalanced and largely inaccurate. Anybody can assail a brand-new program, but that doesn’t make such attacks constructive. We truly wish that People for the American Way had taken the time to contact us about the issues raised in its report prior to its release. Had we been consulted, we could have enlightened the organization with the important information it so obviously lacked.

Sally Sachar
President and CEO
Washington Scholarship Fund
Washington, D.C.

Vol. 24, Issue 25, Pages 33, 35

Published in Print: March 2, 2005, as Key Facts Overlooked in Voucher-Program Report

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