Parents rush to apply for D.C. private school vouchers

For eight years, Elaine Cousins has tried to secure her son a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship from the federally funded voucher program that helps low-income parents pay for local private schools.

Nathan is 13 now, and she’s still trying. On Saturday, Cousins was one of hundreds of parents who attended an informational event at the Renaissance Hotel, near the Convention Center in Northwest, held by the trust that administers the $15 million program.

“I don’t think everyone gets how important it is for parents to have options,’’ Cousins said. “We all want to find what’s best for our children, and nothing is more important than education.’’

An estimated 1,300 students will receive vouchers, which are worth up to $12,000, to pay for education ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. Hundreds more are expected to apply.

Parents apply separately to the voucher program and to the schools of their choice; if there are more applicants to the voucher program than there is money available, the money is distributed by lottery.

Elaine Cousins arrived at Saturday’s session a few minutes after 11 a.m., hoping this year would be different, nodding as a consultant detailed the application process to a room of 40 parents.

Originally authorized by the Bush administration, the program started in 2004 and offered students up to $7,500. The measure passed the House of Representatives, mostly along party lines, by one vote.

But vouchers are still a contentious issue in education and in politics. Teachers unions and other education groups claim they strain money and attention away from public schools. In May 2009, President Obama cut off funding for new students to enter the program.

The program was fully reauthorized this winter, in part because of strong support from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the program’s connection to federal funding of the District’s public schools and its burgeoning charter school system.

The results are yet to be determined. A federal report, issued in 2009, reported that there was no conclusive evidence that students who received the vouchers were performing better academically. But it also noted that parents in the voucher program were significantly more satisfied with their education experience than public school parents, and the trust cites a 91 percent graduation rate among its more than 3,300 recipients.

Andrea Thomas, a 27-year-old mother of two from LeDroit Park, was jubilant at Saturday’s event. “We got the scholarship back!” she said. “They tried to take it from us.”

Because the budget was authorized late in the school year, the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Corporation has had limited time to publicize and recruit this year, according to consultant Jennifer Brown. But the organization will take applications through June ahead of the August lottery.

Applicants must show proof of residency. Participating families must also be food-stamp recipients or make no more than about $41,000 for a family of four — 185 percent of the poverty level.

Cousins sat at a table with six other parents and began to fill out the paperwork. Across from her was Ofunne Olisameka, 26, who had already applied to a school for her kindergartner. “But it’s very expensive,’’ she said of The River School, which costs about $27,000. “But I want the best education for my son. This will help me afford it.”

A former teacher in Prince George’s County, Cousins and her husband, Jeffrey, pulled their three children out of the school system to home-school them.

They live in the Edgewood neighborhood in Northeast, and she recalled rowdy conditions during a visit to a neighborhood school. “There were kids getting beat up on the way home,” Cousins said. “And I said to myself, ‘That’s not going to happen to my child.’ ”

Her daughter Kristin won a voucher in a lottery six years ago and attended Archbishop Carroll High School, a Catholic school in Northeast, where Cousins said she excelled.

“It has to do with being in an environment where everybody is serious about education and wanting every child to succeed,” Cousins said. “When she graduated, I was so proud.”

She carried her pride with her — literally. She had a suitcase packed with awards won by Kristin, now a 19-year-old student at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn.

When she had completed her application, she passed them around to the other parents at the table.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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