More than one in five students who received vouchers to pay for private school tuition in the District are not using them, according to figures released yesterday on implementation of the nation's first federally funded voucher program.
After a lengthy application process, 1,359 low-income students were notified in June that they had won grants of as much as $7,500 a year to pay for private school tuition and fees, contingent on their acceptance by a participating school. Since then, the families of 290 students have dropped out or not responded to efforts by program administrators to reach them.
The remaining students include 1,013 who have been placed in private schools and 56 who are still being matched with schools. Of the 1,013 students placed, more than half are attending schools run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which had the first day of classes yesterday.
The families that did not use their vouchers provided various reasons to the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit group hired by the U.S. Department of Education to run the program. Many parents said they ultimately preferred the educational offerings in public or charter schools. Others cited the costs and logistical challenges of transporting their children to and from private schools across the city. Still others decided to keep their children at private schools that were not participating in the voucher program. A small number moved out of the District and were no longer eligible.
The largest proportion, however, either would not discuss their reasons with the nonprofit group's officials or were unreachable.
Officials with the group said that they expect they will need another year to fill the 1,613 voucher slots funded under the federal legislation, adding that their outreach and coordination efforts were hampered this year by a tight time frame.
"We feel very strongly that the percentage of children not yet placed is not at all a sign of a lack of demand for school choice in the District," said Sally J. Sachar, the group's executive director. "This is a new horizon for families and schools alike and, as in choice programs in other cities, it will take time for more and more families to not just want choice, but take all of the steps necessary to exercise it. And, in the end, some may opt out, again exercising choice nonetheless."
The figures are likely to provide fodder for both sides in the debate over the voucher program, which has been one of the most contentious educational developments in the District in decades. Congress approved the $12.5 million program in January with support from President Bush and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), adding the District to a small list of jurisdictions -- notably Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida -- that have adopted publicly funded voucher programs since 1990.
Education researchers agreed yesterday that the newness and uncertain future of the vouchers, along with obstacles and paperwork involved in switching to private schools, are likely factors in the decision of many voucher recipients not to go through with the program, but they drew different conclusions from the data.
Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the non-participation rate demonstrates the often emotional attachment families feel to local public schools. "Choice always sounds so good in theory, but when you combine it with the day-to-day experiences and complications of poor families and their sense of familiarity with neighborhood schools, it's much more complicated," she said.
Howard Fuller, a former superintendent in Milwaukee who now teaches at Marquette University there, said Milwaukee also experienced much uncertainty when its voucher program was begun in 1990.
"The fact is that people go back and reflect on and change their minds," said Fuller, who chairs the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-voucher group. "I would caution against making any conclusions based on the first year. If people haven't ever had choices before, why would you assume that just because you've made a big announcement, everybody's going to understand it?"
Another voucher proponent suggested that the intense debate surrounding vouchers might have scared people off. "When you've got a highly controversial program, people wonder if it will last, and that also depresses demand," said Paul T. Hill, who heads the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.
A leading parent advocate for school vouchers said she was not discouraged by the data but said parents need more help with exploring private school options and filling out paperwork. "The support needs a little bit of work," said Virginia Walden Ford, who heads a group, D.C. Parents for School Choice, that claims 2,000 members. Low-income parents who are juggling jobs and child care often do not have the time to visit schools or the money to pay incidental fees not covered by the vouchers, she said.
The Washington Scholarship Fund, which has six full-time employees, was selected to administer the D.C. School Choice Incentive Program on March 24. Families of 2,689 children applied between April 28 and May 17. Of the 1,841 applicants who were deemed eligible, 1,359 were chosen, including 208 low-income students who already were enrolled in private schools.
The application process revealed that there were more available spaces than eligible applicants at the elementary level but there was more demand than supply at the middle and high school levels.
To be eligible for a voucher, a student must live in the District and have a family income of no more than 185 percent of the poverty line. The legislation gave priority to students at public schools deemed "in need of improvement" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, then to students at other public schools and finally to students in private schools. Schools that charge more than $7,500 a year in tuition are making up the difference through private grants.