By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005; B01
Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that he is against letting District students use federal vouchers at private high schools outside the city, arguing that no major changes should be made in the program until a five-year trial period is over.
"Everyone involved with the school choice program has agreed that we should let the program run through its trial period before we attempt any major restructuring, such as sending District students to private schools in Maryland and Virginia," Williams (D) said in a written statement. "I'm afraid that tinkering with it now could erode public support for choice and might lead to unintended consequences."
Congress in early 2004 passed the bill creating the pilot program, which provides taxpayer-funded grants of up to $7,500 for low-income District children to attend private or religious schools in the city. The first group of nearly 1,000 voucher students enrolled last fall.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District, proposed last month to expand the program to private and religious high schools outside the city and to increase the $7,500 annual limit on the scholarships. He said both changes, to be introduced as an amendment to the D.C. budget bill, are needed to address a shortage of high school slots in the program.
Officials of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit group that operates the voucher program, have said that up to 80 students offered the scholarships for this fall may wind up being unable to use them because of the lack of high school spaces. They said the problem is expected to worsen in the next few years as elementary school students, who make up most of the program's enrollment, move into older grades.
When Brownback proposed the changes last month, Williams initially expressed concern, but his spokesman later said Williams was open to the idea. Since then, the mayor has "discussed it, consulted with people and thought it through," said Gregory M. McCarthy, the mayor's deputy chief of staff for policy and legislative affairs, explaining how Williams arrived at his conclusion.
The mayor has now adopted the same position as D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who last week said she would urge the board to pass a resolution against Brownback's proposal. The board is expected to discuss the resolution tomorrow at a meeting.
Williams and Cafritz backed last year's voucher legislation, and their support was critical to the bill's passage. Some congressional staff said their opposition to Brownback's amendment would hurt its chances.
"The voices of the mayor and the school board president are important," said Adam Sharp, a spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), the ranking Democrat on the D.C. subcommittee, who opposes major changes in the voucher program. "I think anything like this is going to be more successful through the partnership of all involved."
Brownback and his staff did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.
Sally Sachar, president and chief executive of the Washington Scholarship Fund, would not comment on Williams's statement, saying she is leaving it up to elected officials to work out the rules of the program. But she said the mayor is a key player in the voucher experiment.
"I think all of us who are involved in this program believe strongly in the partnership with the mayor and the federal government, and keeping that partnership strong is essential to the success of this program," she said.
Brownback could introduce the amendment at a committee meeting as early as July 21. But Sachar and several congressional staff members said the measure was unlikely to receive final passage in Congress in time to help voucher recipients without high school slots this fall.
Sachar said those students will be able to use their vouchers in the 2006-07 school year if spaces open up, without having to reapply.