This post has been updated.
President Obama did not request any funding for the District’s Opportunity Scholarship Program in his fiscal 2013 budget, and the program’s biggest backers on Capitol Hill want the White House to know that they took notice.
In a letter sent to Obama on Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said they were “very disappointed” by Obama’s decision, contending that the program “is a
critically important part of K-12 education in the District of Columbia.”
In two separate letters, Boehner, Lieberman, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and two other committee chairs asked the Department of Education and the local body that administers the program for a host of information about how it is being run and marketed to prospective students.
The scholarship program— which gives low-income District students money for private-school tuition — has long been a priority for Boehner, an ardent supporter of the District’s Catholic schools. Obama agreed to sign the Boehner-authored SOAR Act in April 2011 as part of a deal to avert a government shutdown.
The scholarship program has divided city leaders, as it is supported by D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and former mayors Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams, but opposed by current Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
Under the SOAR Act, the District receives $60 million per year in federal funds for five years, with the money equally divided between the scholarship program, charter schools and traditional public schools. But Obama’s budget submission included the suggestion that there was enough unspent money left over in the scholarship program to pay for the current number of scholarships.
“In our view, as co-authors of the SOAR Act, the Act reauthorizes a robust 5-year program and does not cap the number of students who are able to receive scholarships,” Boehner and Lieberman wrote. “Current enrollment levels are significantly below OSP enrollment at its peak.”
They also “note that in a very short period of time, [the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation’s] OSP unit successfully renewed the scholarships for 900 students and processed 1,558 new applications, which resulted in a total enrollment of 1,615 students as of October 3, 2012, for the 2011-2012 school year.”(The latest statistics on the program can be found here.)
In a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the larger group of lawmakers wrote that “in order for the program to operate optimally, it is imperative that the program administrator and the Department of Education work in close collaboration. As the end of the current school year approaches, serious concerns have arisen about the state of this working relationship, as well as the Department’s implementation of the law.”
They complain that the Obama administration is trying to “limit the size and scope” of the program, and ask for a wide variety of letters and e-mails related to the way the program has been run. The same lawmakers also wrote a letter to the head of the Trust Corporation asking “what specific steps the Trust is taking to publicize the program to ensure optimal outreach and parent and school participation.”
White House spokesman Kenneth Baer defended the administration’s proposal to use leftover money in the program and not add to the current number of scholarships.
“The Administration is committed to providing funding through high school graduation for those students who enroll in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Baer said.”With the tight spending caps, we need to use taxpayer dollars carefully.”
In response to the letter to Duncan, Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said: “We want to make sure and support the kids who are already in the system and help them successfully graduate. At the end of the day our interest is in supporting all children in DC public schools, and not just a small number of them.”
Obama’s budget is strictly an advisory document, and it appears unlikely that Boehner will agree to any spending deals this year that do not fully fund the opportunity scholarships.