D.C. school-choice program may find new life with new Congress

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A new Congress has brought better prospects for supporters of the D.C. school-choice program abruptly nixed by Congress in 2009.

“We’ve got reason for our hopes to be higher,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairing a Senate committee hearing Wednesday on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. “We’re just not going to miss any opportunities…I think we’ve got a real shot at [reinstating the program] this year.”

The scholarship program, which gives more than 1,500 mostly minority and low-income District students $7,500 scholarships to private schools, was established in a narrow 2004 vote under a Republican congress. It operated with good reviews and good results, according to congressionally mandated studies, until its funding was cut in 2009.

The ensuing row raised by D.C. parents and students led the Obama administration to reinstate funding for students already in the program until they graduate, but to discontinue the program for new applicants.

Lieberman noted Wednesday the increased support for the program in the new Congress. An Opportunity Scholarship bill is the first one Speaker John Boehner put his name to in January, and it would fund the program for five years, allow for new participants, and raise the scholarship amount. Lieberman also noted a poll released Wednesday, commissioned by a pro-scholarship group, which found 74 percent of D.C. residents want the program reinstated and expanded.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray opposed the voucher program Wednesday, preferring charters and local control, but supported funding it until all current students have graduated. Notably, the poll showing wide support for the program in D.C. was conducted by Gray’s own pollster, Lester & Associates.

Gray softpedaled his objections, no doubt partly because D.C. would likely lose matching funds for public schools and charter schools associated with Opportunity Scholarship funding if the program is allowed to die.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown, a convert on the voucher issue, spoke about how his personal experiences with scholarship students and parents had convinced him of its worth.

“I believe that the Opportunity Scholarship Program can increase the number of quality education options for low-income families,” Brown said. “The data suggests participants and their entire families are benefiting from this experience.”

The principal investigator for the study Congress mandated when it started the program testified about the program’s results. A division of the Department of Education found students in the program graduated high school at a rate of 91 percent— 21 percent higher than non-scholarship students. Of 13 studies conducted by this division of the Department of Education, only four showed any statistically significant improvements at all, and only one showed greater results than the study of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, said investigator Patrick Wolf.

The House GOP is also looking into alternative ways to fund the program, perhaps through language in the budget continuing resolution the body must pass to keep the government running. The House Oversight Committee will schedule a hearing on the program in the near future, according to someone familiar with the committee’s plans.

“I cannot tell you the number of calls I’ve gotten from parents who are distraught that the government is shuttering the program,” said activist Virginia Walden-Ford, who led the fight during the 2004 passage of the bill. “We must restore this.”