Once left hanging by a thread, a federally funded voucher program for low-income students in the nation’s capital was revived in the budget compromise Congress approved earlier this month.
Restoring the controversial D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first federally financed private-school-voucher program in the nation, was a key priority of U.S. Speaker of the House John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. He and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats, had teamed up earlier this year to craft a bill to allow 1,700 students from the 45,000-student District of Columbia school system to take advantage of vouchers to defray tuition costs at private and religious schools. That bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in March, but had not yet been passed by the Senate when it was rolled into the last-minute budget legislation.
Launched in 2004, the $500 million program initially provided public school students with vouchers up to $7,500 for tuition, transportation, and other fees, but the new provisions allow for vouchers up to $12,000 for high school students and up to $8,000 for elementary and middle school students.
The Obama administration ended the program in March 2009—much to the dismay of District of Columbia families who benefited from the program during its initial run—but agreed to continue funding for current students. In May 2010, the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, a nonprofit that provides social services and promotes funding initiatives for Washington youths, began administering the voucher program. To date, the federal program has awarded scholarships to more than 1,900 students.
Range of Options
Under the compromise approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama earlier this month, the program was renewed for five more years.
Language restoring the program was included in one of two riders added to the budget bill—the other banned federal funding for abortions in the city. Both issues led District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other local politicians to take part in a rally protesting the budget compromise as an intrusion on local government—an action for which the mayor was arrested.
But other current and former politicians in the city welcomed the program’s reinstatement.
“I think there’s a fallacy, a misconception in education reform that there’s only one answer or one way to educate children,” said Kevin P. Chavous, a former city councilmanand the chairman of the Black Alliance for Education Options, a Washington-based group that promotes school choice for low-income and working-class African-American families. “I think there needs to be a full range of options for parents and children.”
Mr. Chavous, along with then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams and former school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, led the effort to launch the program. He said it has helped trigger school reform by applying pressure on public schools to improve student success.
Priority was intended to be given to children who came from schools where up to 85 percent were failing to reach federal improvement targets for reading and mathematics, he said.
Critics of the voucher program argued, however, that it often failed to improve outcomes for students from the worst-performing schools, was unconstitutional, and injected religion into the public schools by including religious schools in the mix of those eligible for vouchers. One powerful critic, the American Federation of Teachers, argued that the academic gains exhibited by students who have used vouchers were not significant enough to merit continued funding of the program.
A three-year evaluation of the program, released in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, compared students who had been offered a voucher through the district’s lottery system with those who had applied but failed to get a seat. It found a mix of results. Overall, the IES study found that after three years, students who had been offered vouchers showed modest, statistically significant improvement on reading test scores, but not in math. While student satisfaction was unaffected, parents were much more satisfied, reporting that they viewed their child’s new school as “safer and more orderly.”
The study also indicated that students who used the vouchers had a 91 percent high school graduation rate, more than 30 percentage points higher than the graduation rates in traditional District of Columbia schools at the time.
However, Nathan A. Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said the private school scholarships remove valuable resources from all students and direct them to only a small number of pupils. He also said there is no significant correlation between vouchers and higher academic performance.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as Budget Compromise Puts Vouchers Back on Track for Students in D.C.