The classrooms are small, located in what were perhaps once bedrooms. On the walls are posters of Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam.
On a recent visit, the only bathroom in the school had a floor blackened with dirt and a sink coated in grime. The bathtub was filled with paint cans and cleaning supplies concealed by a curtain.
Muhammad said in a subsequent interview that the bathroom is used only in emergencies, and students typically use a restroom on the floor below in a day-care center that she had previously described as unrelated to the school.
Kevin P. Chavous, a former D.C. Council member and now a senior adviser to American Federation for Children, which lobbies for voucher programs nationwide, said schools receiving public funds should meet quality standards. But supporters of the D.C. program have been focused on overcoming political challenges, he said.
“There should be some accountability measures in all these programs,” Chavous said. “Our biggest challenge has been the constant threats to shut this down before we can even measure the schools.”
Since Congress created the voucher program in 2004, Boehner and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) have regularly wrestled with Democrats over its fate. Republicans and Lieberman want to expand the program; Democrats want to phase it out.
“Our goal is to provide a quality education to all children — not just a few — which is why the Obama administration does not believe vouchers are the answer to America’s educational challenges,” said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) also are opposed to the voucher program, saying public dollars should go toward improving public schools where they can help the most students.
Still, the program has offered some children a crucial path out of troubled city schools.
Ophelia Johnson and her daughters were homeless when she learned about the voucher program. She obtained vouchers for both her daughters and enrolled them at the Calvary Christian Academy, which she credits with providing her children a secure, caring and consistent environment as she pulled her life together.
“It’s wonderful,” Johnson said about the voucher program that allowed her daughters to attend the academy. “The atmosphere, the education, and it’s also a Christian school. They taught my girls.”
Now, Johnson is employed, newly remarried and living with her daughters in a condominium on Capitol Hill. Her older daughter, Tabitha, is applying to colleges.
“She’ll be the first to go in the family,” Johnson said, pride in her voice.