Private-school vouchers go to about 300 D.C. students

August 4, 2012

Nearly 300 D.C. children were awarded private-school tuition vouchers last week, part of a federally funded program that generates perennial debate among leaders in the city and on Capitol Hill.

Many of the voucher winners gathered Saturday in a gymnasium at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington in Southeast, where they talked to representatives from private schools around the city and finalized enrollment decisions for the coming year.

Vouchers are often considered an alternative to — or escape from — traditional public schools. But they also appeal to students enrolled in D.C. public charter schools.

“I don’t believe the hype that private school is always the best option,” said Crystal Reed, whose 8-year-old daughter is leaving Imagine Hope Community Charter School in Brookland for the nearby Metropolitan Day School. “But I do think it’s a good thing to try out, especially if you can get it for free.”

Reed said she hopes that her daughter will benefit from Metropolitan’s smaller class sizes and daily Bible study.

Voucher recipients can get up to $12,205 to attend participating private high schools and $8,136 to attend elementary and middle schools.

To be eligible, applicants’ families must live in the city and either receive food stamps or earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $42,600 for a family of four).

More than 1,400 kids are already receiving vouchers. An additional 1,300 applied for open slots this year. Of those, 505 were found eligible and entered a lottery Tuesday, and 299 were selected for vouchers.

“Do you know how hard it is to get this?” said Barbara Payne, whose 10-year-old son will use his voucher to attend St. Thomas More Academy in Southeast. “When you get an opportunity like this, you can’t let it go.”

She beamed at her son, Darnell Matthews, a slight boy with an earnest smile and a habit of making the honor roll. He said he had been nervous about the prospect of attending his neighborhood middle school because of its reputation for fighting.

“I’m going to meet a lot of new friends, and it’s going to be fun,” he said of St. Thomas More, which has fewer than 200 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has offered tuition assistance to more than 5,000 children since 2004. It has also generated intense debate about whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support private and parochial schools.

The Obama administration has repeatedly sought to zero out funding for the vouchers, while House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has fought to maintain the program as a beachhead in the school-choice movement.

The issue has also divided local leaders. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) have argued that vouchers are an example of congressional meddling in District affairs.

Others say the program benefits families who can’t wait for public schools to improve.

“This program has had a lot of positive results for many parents and families,” said Kevin P. Chavous, a former D.C. Council member (D-Ward 7) who pushed for expanding the city’s charter-school sector and played a key role in establishing the vouchers.

This fall, investigators are launching a study to assess whether vouchers make a difference in academic achievement. A previous five-year study, published in 2010, concluded that voucher recipients did not score significantly higher on standardized tests in math or reading than students who had applied for a voucher, were eligible to receive one but missed out in the lottery. But the voucher recipients were more likely to graduate from high school.

On Saturday, statistics and politics seemed far away. Parents and children picked up bags of free school supplies and hunched over school brochures, hoping that their luck in the lottery would open doors to richer opportunities and a better shot at college.

“I’m so happy. Oh my God, I’m so happy!” said Delmira Cueva, a custodian at the Library of Congress whose 14-year-old daughter, Claudia Cueva, plans to use her voucher to attend St. John’s College High School in Northwest.

Claudia, a rising freshman who attended Meridian Public Charter School in Northwest, said she loves math and has toyed with the idea of becoming a forensic scientist. But she isn’t sure yet and thinks that St. John’s will help her figure that out.

“It’s going to prepare me well for my life,” she said.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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