A lottery for D.C. students seeking federal vouchers to attend private schools yielded nearly two applicants yesterday for each available slot, with most students currently enrolled in low-performing schools.
Officials with the Washington Scholarship Fund said the second year of the program addresses a persistent criticism of the first: that too few students from low-performing public schools and too many already enrolled in private schools had received vouchers. The program also failed to draw enough students for a congressionally mandated evaluation to be conducted.
In its first lottery this year, the scholarship fund drew 506 applicants in grades 6 to 12 for 271 slots, and it appears on track to have enough to establish a control group for researchers to conduct the scientific review.
The program also selected 67 percent of the students from "needs improvement" schools, well within the range of the federal requirement. And none of the students was already enrolled in a private school.
"We're very pleased in our second year to be able to offer scholarships to so many motivated middle and high school students. The bad news is many who wanted the scholarships couldn't get them," said Sally Sachar, president and chief executive of the Washington Scholarship Fund.
Through at least two more lotteries, officials said, the fund will fill an additional 430 to 530 open positions with students in kindergarten through grade 12.
"We expected it to play out this way," she added. "The challenge [last year] of launching a program in 3 1/2 months meant it would be difficult right away to achieve the objective of the legislation."
The lottery came on the same day that one of the scholarship fund's frequent critics, the People for the American Way Foundation, announced that it had filed suit against the U.S. Department of Education over unfulfilled Freedom of Information Act requests concerning the D.C. voucher program.
Data obtained through earlier requests resulted in a report issued in February that detailed the shortage of students from "needs improvement" schools and identified other areas in which the program fell short of federal expectations. It also revealed e-mail exchanges in which department and scholarship fund officials appear to discuss how to conceal some of the program's shortcomings.
In its lawsuit, filed Wednesday, People for the American Way asserted that the department failed to provide information on the lotteries. The organization also sought all documents related to the department's evaluation of vouchers.
Judith E. Schaeffer, People for the American Way's deputy legal director, said the department honored disclosure requests until the foundation released its report. "Then the door slammed shut in our faces," she said. "The law is clear: We are entitled to the records we are seeking."
Schaeffer said any changes introduced by the voucher program "appear to be in response to our criticism."
Sachar and officials at the Department of Education declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Established by Congress last year, the D.C. voucher program offers $7,500 scholarships for about 1,700 low-income students to attend private schools.
Next year, the number of private schools participating will increase from 53 to 66. About 45 of the schools involved next year are affiliated with the Catholic Church or other religious organizations.
Local and federal supporters of the vouchers program said yesterday that they were pleased with the results of the lottery.
"This shows clearly that school choice is working just as I'd hoped it would two years ago when I sought to give parents more control of their children's education," Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said in a statement.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement that the demand for the program "demonstrates that families are hungry for high-quality school choice options."
Sachar said the scholarship fund will continue to receive applications from students in kindergarten through grade 5 until May 6. After that, the fund will hold lotteries for kindergarten through grade 5 and for grades 6 through 12.