By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009; B03
Classes in District public schools start Monday, and 216 students are hoping they won't have to go back. About 70 parents, children and activists joined Thursday in front of the U.S. Department of Education to encourage Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to award vouchers to help the students pay for private school.
The students, who were offered vouchers worth as much as $7,500 toward tuition from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program this spring before Duncan rescinded them in the face of the program's uncertain future, were left to find placements in public and charter schools. Some families have complained that by the time the vouchers were rolled back, there were few spots available at competitive public schools.
"We're hoping that Secretary Duncan is going to look out the window so he can see how strongly the parents support it," said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, one of the groups that organized the protest. "They just put families into a bad situation."
The protest drew parents and students already in the voucher program, but seemingly few, if any, of the 216 whose immediate future is at stake. Children held signs saying "Save the 216," chanted slogans of support and praised the program.
"I wasn't doing well academically" before attending Archbishop Carroll High School, said Ronald Holassie, 17, who will be a junior when school resumes. "Now I'm doing much better." He described the experience of bouncing between several public schools before the voucher program started in 2003, and praised the Catholic schools that he said had given him academic discipline.
Congress voted in March to cut off funding for the city's voucher program after the 2009-10 academic year unless the entire program is reauthorized by lawmakers, which will be tough in the Democrat-led body. President Obama later proposed maintaining funding for the 1,716 students already in the program until they graduate high school but closing the door on new entrants.
The contentious program, which has served as a proxy in a nationwide fight about whether to use public funds for private education, has drawn support from school-choice advocates, including Republicans and many low-income families who say the program gives poor children better access to quality education. Teacher unions and other education groups active on the Democratic side have argued that the vouchers benefit relatively few students and drain money from public education.
Duncan said Thursday at a lunch with Arlington County principals that the long-term goal is to find ways to help every child. "We can't pull out 1 or 2 percent," he said.
An April report commissioned by the Department of Education found an overall increase in reading but not math scores among students who received vouchers. Students coming to the program from the worst-performing schools showed no improvement at all.
Staff writer Michael Alison Chandler contributed to this report.