By Bill Turque and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 7, 2009; B01
President Obama will propose setting aside enough money for all 1,716 students in the District's voucher program to continue receiving grants for private school tuition until they graduate from high school, but he would allow no new students to join the program, administration officials said yesterday.
The proposal, to be released in budget documents today, is an attempt to navigate a middle way on a contentious issue. School choice advocates, including Republicans and many low-income families, say the program gives poor children better access to quality education. Teachers unions and other education groups active in the Democratic Party regard vouchers as a drain on public education that benefits relatively few students, and they say the students don't achieve at appreciably higher levels at their new schools.
Congress voted in March to cut off funding after the 2009-10 academic year unless the entire program is reauthorized by lawmakers, a dim prospect in the Democrat-led body. The White House proposal would revise the law and secure grants for the coming school year, but Obama has to persuade Democratic lawmakers to support a gradual phaseout by continuing to include grant funding in future appropriation bills.
His proposal drew support from some backers of the voucher program, officially known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
"I think it's a step in a good direction," said former District mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), a major proponent of the voucher program, established by a Republican-led Congress in 2004.
Others called the proposal a weak attempt to placate school choice advocates.
"It's a cop-out. They're just trying to buy people off," said Joseph E. Robert Jr., a philanthropist and founder of Fight for Children, a nonprofit group that seeks educational opportunities for low-income children.
The Department of Education recently issued a three-year analysis of student achievement under the program that found limited gains in reading and no significant progress in math. But the White House concluded that moving the children back to public schools amounted to an unnecessary disruption.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan had told reporters that it didn't make sense "to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning."
More than 8,000 District students have applied for scholarships since the program's inception, and about 3,000 have received the grants of as much as $7,500 a year for private or parochial schools. Of the 1,716 current scholarship recipients, about 1,400 are in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The largest cohort, 211 students, is in second grade, according to figures provided by the Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the voucher program.
"We're delighted for the children and their families, and we're also delighted that the administration appreciates the value of this program," said Gregory M. Cork, president and chief executive of the scholarship fund. "At the same time, we'd love to see others get a chance to have the opportunity."
Before Congress cut off funding for new scholarship students, 630 had applied for fall 2009. About 200 of those were awarded scholarships that were rescinded after the congressional action, Cork said.
Several hundred voucher and school choice supporters, including children from private schools attended by scholarship recipients, donned yellow T-shirts and rallied at Freedom Plaza in front of the Wilson Building yesterday. They called on federal lawmakers to fully restore the program.
Some cited a recent survey that found that 38 percent of members of Congress have sent children to private schools. About 20 percent of the lawmakers attended private schools, almost twice the rate of the general public.
"Your tax dollars go to pay the same members of Congress, 40 percent of whom send their kids to private schools," Robert said. "I am 100 percent for public schools . . . but this is about your rights, your civil rights."
Patricia William, whose 12-year-old son, Fransoir, is a seventh-grade scholarship student at Sacred Heart School in Northwest Washington, said his five years in the program made an incalculable difference.
"I have never made a better decision than to apply for the program," she said.
Told of the president's decision, Fransoir said: "I think that's good. Instead of pulling us out while we're learning, we can stay."