Debate Brings National Attention To D.C.'s School Reform Efforts

By Bill Turque and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 17, 2008

The District's public charter schools and federally funded voucher program, which both figured prominently in a rare discussion of education at Wednesday night's presidential debate, are school reform vehicles that face distinctly different futures no matter who moves into the White House in January.

The District's emphasis on school choice as a key education reform stands out in the region and nationally. A growing crop of charter schools serves many city students. And five years ago, Congress created the voucher program, making it the first federal initiative to commit taxpayer dollars to private school tuition.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program was hailed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a victory for school choice. Last year, it awarded grants of as much as $7,500 to 1,900 children from low-income families.

"I've got to tell you that vouchers, where they are requested and where they are agreed to, are a good and workable system. And it's been proven," McCain said in an exchange with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who opposes the idea.

But a U.S. Department of Education study released in June showed that students in the program generally scored no higher on reading and math tests after two years than public school peers. The findings are consistent with previous studies of the voucher program.

Leslie Nabors Olah, senior researcher for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a coalition of five prominent universities, said that the D.C. voucher program hasn't shown immediate benefits and that more research needs to be done.

"We have no evidence that vouchers work," Nabors Olah said.

Prospects for continued congressional support of the voucher effort remain clouded at best. The program is at the end of its five-year authorization, and Democrats, widely expected to strengthen their hold on the House and possibly win a 60-seat majority in the Senate, have traditionally opposed vouchers as a threat to the stability of public schools.

Congressional Democrats have agreed to fund the program at its current level of $14.8 million through next year, but beyond that, the outlook is dim. It will most likely leave the Opportunity Scholarship Program to rely either on District or private funds.

Charter schools, publicly funded and privately operated, are supported by McCain and Obama. And despite conflicting evidence of their effectiveness in closing the achievement gap, charter schools have emerged as an accepted alternative to underperforming public schools.

The 60 charters in the District, which will serve an estimated 26,000 students on 90 campuses this year, make up about a third of the District's public school enrollment. And although the national economic nosedive has tightened credit and made it more difficult for start-up charter groups to obtain construction financing and lines of credit, it is likely to slow, not halt, the movement's growth, experts say.

There are 4,303 charter schools in the country, educating more than 1.2 million children, according to the National Alliance of Charter Schools.

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