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D.C. Vouchers, Once Again, Subject of Federal Fight

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If judged merely by the attention it receives from the upper reaches of government, the District of Columbia's Opportunity Scholarship Program is probably the most closely scrutinized private school voucher enterprise in the country.

This year, the merits of the eight-year-old voucher program are being debated once again, after President Obama proposed providing no money for the program—currently funded at $20 million—in his fiscal 2013 budget.

The administration argues that the program has enough funding to continue and serve new students, as current enrollees leave the program. (See page 1317 of the linked budget document for the Obama team's explanation.)

But the proposed cut has drawn the objections of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who said it would effectively cap participation in the program. In a March 22 letter, co-signed by Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, the GOP leader said the president's proposal violated the spirit of a deal reached last year on the D.C. voucher program by policymakers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The lawmakers said they "take issue with your budget justification, which suggests that current unobligated funds are sufficient to fund current students and new students who may receive scholarships as spaces open up through attrition."

As part of a federal budget agreement reached in 2011, Congress and the administration agreed to support the voucher program, which allows children from economically disadvantaged families to attend private schools with public funds. The agreement called for the program to receive $60 million, to be divided among the voucher sector, D.C.'s public school system, and the city's charter schools.

The District's voucher program is small—it serves only about 1,600 students. But it has been a source of political volatility since its inception. Supporters say it provides valuable options for disadvantaged families in one of the nation's lowest-performing school districts, while opponents describe it as a government program foisted on the District by conservatives in Congress.

In 2009, when Democrats were in control of Congress and the White House, they allowed the program to expire. But when Republicans took control of the House after the 2010 elections, backers of the program saw the possibility of a revival, hopes that were realized in last year's budget deal.

A 2010 evaluation of the program by the federal Institute of Education Sciences found no evidence that the program had an effect on the academic achievement of students who were offered or used vouchers. But the study concluded that program significantly boosted graduation rates among students offered scholarships.

The researchers also found that parents' school satisfaction and sense of school safety increased with participation in the program—though it did not among students themselves.

Look for the fortunes of D.C.'s vouchers to rise or fall once again in the next round of budget and policy battles between the executive and legislative branches.

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