To Retain Students, Higher Income Rule Sought

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006

A senator on the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee plans to introduce legislation to increase the income guidelines for the District's federally funded school voucher program to prevent hundreds of students from being forced out of it in the next three years, officials said.

Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, intends to introduce legislation Thursday that would increase the income guidelines to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, from 200 percent, according to an aide in his office. The aide said a potential exodus of 150 students a year could threaten a federally mandated evaluation of the program, which has about 1,650 students.

Under the $14 million-a-year program, low-income District students in kindergarten through 12th grade receive scholarships of as much as $7,500 each to cover tuition and other expenses at private and religious schools in the city.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) blasted the plan to change the income guidelines and called for the Government Accountability Office to investigate the voucher program.

"The wholesale grandfathering in of all parents regardless of the circumstances of the increase in family income violates a cardinal principle of the voucher program and of every federal program for low-income families," she said in a statement Thursday.

The proposal represents the second time in a year that Brownback has sought to fine-tune the voucher program. Last year, 47 students who received scholarships were unable to use them because too few high school slots existed.

Last summer, Brownback proposed to expand the program to include high schools in Maryland and Virginia. But he dropped the idea after encountering criticism from D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz that such a change would invalidate the federal study.

Williams, however, supports the proposal to raise the income guidelines, said spokesman Vince Morris.

Sally J. Sachar, president and chief executive of the Washington Scholarship Fund, which runs the voucher program, said the proposal would raise the income level for a family of four to $60,000 a year, from $40,000. The change is needed because the incomes of numerous families have exceeded the guidelines, she said, potentially forcing about 150 students out of the program.

In one case, Sachar said, a mother was told her child would lose the scholarship because the mother's income rose after she reconciled with her husband. In another case, Sachar said, a mother of seven was told her child's scholarship was jeopardized because she took a part-time job to support her family.

The shortage of high school slots and the current income guideline could force out 600 students in the next three years, Sachar said. These "children would be yanked out of school after just having gotten settled," she said, adding that new students entering the program would be subject to the current, 200 percent income guidelines.

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