Fate of D.C. Voucher Program Darkens

By Valerie Strauss and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 9, 2008

The groundbreaking federal voucher program that enables nearly 2,000 D.C. children to attend private schools is facing an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Congress and may well be heading into its final year of operation, according to officials and supporters of the program.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said this week that she is working on a plan to phase out the controversial D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first in the country to provide federal money for vouchers. Norton said she wants to proceed in a way that will not harm recipients. But she added that she regarded the program, narrowly approved in 2004 for five years by the then-Republican majority, as on its last legs.

"We have to protect the children, who are the truly innocent victims here," said Norton, who like many Democrats opposes vouchers as a threat to public school systems. "But I can tell you that the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program."

Most Democrats have traditionally opposed vouchers as a threat to the stability of public schools. The possible demise of the D.C. program is one more sign of the new directions K-12 education reform might soon take as a result of the 2008 election. Congressional Democrats have promised to overhaul -- if not eliminate -- President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind law. And next year, a new administration, one headed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is certain to bring its own ideas to the table.

Changes in District politics have also compromised the future of the aid program, which awards scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to low-income children for tuition and other fees at participating private schools. Early champions of the initiative -- former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D) and former D.C. Board of Education president Peggy Cooper Cafritz -- have all left office.

Williams's successor, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who is focused on an attempt to transform D.C. public schools, has not opposed continuation of the scholarships but has been far less robust in his support. When Williams endorsed the measure, Fenty, then on the D.C. Council, accused him of abandoning home rule.

"He sold out cheap," Fenty said then.

Fenty's office did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Scholarship supporters have appealed to Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that will take up the issue later this month. President Bush's budget includes $74 million to boost education in the District, with money divided among D.C. schools, public charter schools and the scholarship program, which is slated to receive $18 million. But with Norton opposed and Democrats headed into an election cycle, advocates say the scholarships face a tough road.

"There is a lot of Democratic Party politics at play this year," said Chavous, an outspoken advocate for school choice. "The party doesn't want anything in place where public money is utilized to support children in private schools."

Williams said in an interview Friday that there was "no question" the program was in jeopardy but added that he was confident Fenty would work to protect it.

In a statement Friday, Serrano, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairman of the subcommittee on financial services and general government, was reluctant to get between Norton and other D.C. Democrats. "My hope is that we will work out a solution that will have the broadest possible support," he said.

"I do not wish to inject myself and my opinions into D.C. issues . . . D.C. does not need a second mayor."

Joseph E. Robert Jr., chairman of the board of the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the program, was unavailable to comment. According to fund executive director Greg Cork, there were 1,903 K-12 students using about $12 million in scholarship funds at 54 D.C. private schools at the start of the 2007-08 school year. The average income among those participating families is $22,736, or about 107 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four.

Creation of the fund in 2004 put the District at the forefront of the school-choice movement. At that time, the Republican-led federal government was taking steps to use the nation's capital -- with its ailing public school system -- as a showcase for educational reforms, which also included the country's most sweeping charter school law.

Parents of scholarship recipients offer high praise for the program, crediting it with changing the direction of their children's lives. Patricia William, whose son Fransoir, 11, is a sixth-grader at Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in Northwest, said his growth has been striking.

"He's been developed in many ways, intellectually, emotionally and in his values," she said. "I couldn't ask for anything better."

Wendy Cunningham said her daughter Jordan, who will be a senior, has thrived since entering Georgetown Day School two years ago and has had access to opportunities that likely would not be available otherwise. This summer, Cunningham said, Jordan will enter summer programs at Catholic University and San Francisco State.

"Other people should have the same opportunity and choices," said Cunningham, who supplements the voucher money with other funds to make the school's $26,000 tuition.

The program has also drawn criticism. A 2007 Government Accountability Office study found that some participating private schools lacked proper permits to operate. It has also been faulted for allowing ineligible families to receive federal funds and for failing to ensure that families selected accredited schools.

Cork said in e-mails that fund officials followed the rules and that the ultimate decision about where to attend was up to the families.

Opponents said they thought the program blurred the separation of church and state because more than half of the students have enrolled in religious schools, most of them Catholic. One reason, proponents said, is the prohibitive expense of many secular private schools.

Norton said she has warned fund officials that the program would be killed by Congress and that it was important to start telling families that the vouchers would not be continued indefinitely.

She also said she has in the past week met with families receiving scholarships and learned that many of them were unaware of the funding situation.

"They looked completely befuddled," she said.

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