School Choice & Charters

Group Picked to Run Voucher Program for D.C. Students

By John Gehring — March 31, 2004 3 min read

A local nonprofit group will administer the federally financed voucher program approved for the nation’s capital by Congress in January, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced last week.

The Washington Scholarship Fund already provides more than 1,000 students from the District of Columbia with privately financed scholarships to attend private schools. It was selected after an application process directed by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement, in partnership with the mayor’s office.

“We have selected a credible, capable, and competent administrator,” Mr. Paige said at a March 24 press conference here that was also attended by Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the president of the city’s board of education, and other political leaders.

Mr. Paige praised the Washington Scholarship Fund’s “stellar application” and proven track record in managing a scholarship program. The fund, founded a decade ago by a group of local business and community leaders, is the largest and oldest granter of privately underwritten scholarships for K-12 students in the District of Columbia.

“Today, with this announcement, I believe we are witnessing history,” Mr. Paige said. “This is a defining moment for American education, a milestone of achievement. For each of these students, this is educational emancipation. What happens here in D.C. will be observed across the world. We must make this a model.”

How It Works

Although the voucher program is sure to attract attention from cheerleaders, critics, and researchers, the scope of the program is small.

Using a lottery system, about 2,000 Washington students from low-income families will be awarded up to $7,500 a year in tuition, fees, and transportation costs to attend private schools, either secular or religious, of their choice. Some $12 million in scholarship funds will be available to be used beginning in the fall for students in grades K-12.

Students who attend public schools that have been identified as needing improvement or correction will have priority in receiving the scholarships.

The school choice program is a five-year pilot project that will be studied by an outside evaluator selected by the Education Department. As of last week, no evaluator had been selected.

Sally J. Sacher, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington Scholarship Fund, said her organization would begin a public-information campaign to notify families about the program. In addition to informational meetings, it plans to advertise, send mailings to families, and conduct a door- to-door campaign in high-priority neighborhoods, officials said.

The scholarship fund will work with other local nonprofit groups, including Capital Partners for Education, D.C. Parents for School Choice, and the Greater Washington Urban League.

“We are excited and honored to have this chance to be a part of opening more doors for D.C. schools, students, and families,” Ms. Sacher said.

Mayor Williams, a Democrat who had supported the voucher plan on Capitol Hill, acknowledged the political challenges faced in pushing for such a program in the city. The effort sparked intense debate among members of Congress and among local and national education leaders. (“Federal Plan for Vouchers Clears Senate,” Jan. 28, 2004.)

All of the members of the District of Columbia’s school board—except for Ms. Cafritz—objected to the plan. The National School Boards Association and the National Education Association also spoke out against the measure.

“This has been a long road, and it will continue to be tough, but we have accomplished a lot,” Mr. Williams said.

Ms. Cafritz explained why she was ultimately persuaded to back the measure.

“I did it because I hear all this talk about ‘children first,’ and I know that the truth of the matter is that educated children are first, and whatever we can do to advance one child more rapidly, we have to do,” she said.

When the voucher plan is up and running, Washington will join Milwaukee and Cleveland as cities in which students can receive publicly financed tuition vouchers to attend private schools.

Through either direct state vouchers or tax credits for donors, Florida offers private school tuition aid to students in the most underperforming public schools, some low- income families, and children with disabilities.

A voucher program adopted by the Colorado legislature has been put on hold as a legal battle continues. In Utah, meanwhile, the governor vetoed a voucher plan last week. (“Gov. Walker Turns Down Voucher Bill,” this issue.)

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