New students unlikely to get D.C. school vouchers

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Congress appears likely to keep the D.C. voucher program closed to new students but open to current ones, curtailing the hopes of advocates who had pressed for a full revival of the controversial program.

The news is buried deep within a thousand-page omnibus spending bill released Monday by a joint conference of House and Senate Appropriations Committee members. The proposal allocates $13.2 million to vouchers and would tighten accountability measures for schools that participate in the program, which provides low-income D.C. students with up to $7,500 to attend private schools.

Bringing further upheaval to the program, the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit organization that has overseen the voucher program since its beginning in 2004, sent the Department of Education a letter last week announcing that it planned to withdraw from its role at the end of this school year if the program is not reauthorized by the end of January. Congressional staff members said it is unlikely that there will be a vote by then.

That would leave the Department of Education to find a new group to administer the program.

Fund administrators said that it was unfair for families receiving vouchers to be in limbo beyond January, when the applications season for private schools, charters and out-of-boundary public schools kicks into high gear, and that uncertainty about the program is making it "virtually impossible" to prepare the application and renewal process.

"We can't reasonably help our families, and we can't reasonably run this, if a decision about the future is not made" by January, said Gregory Cork, president and chief executive of the organization.

The Washington Scholarship Fund's plans were first reported by the Weekly Standard.

At contentious hearings this fall, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Washington Scholarship Fund staff failed to exercise sufficient oversight. Durbin questioned the quality of some of the schools in the program. New language in the bill requires the schools to be accredited. Students receiving vouchers will also have to take the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests, the standardized exams that D.C. public schools administers to its students. Schools will also have to be inspected at least twice a year, and the secretary of education will have to submit a report to Congress by June 15 "detailing the academic rigor and quality of each participating school."

The spending bill does not address whether the program will be reauthorized. That will be put to a separate vote sometime in the winter or spring. There is still a chance the program could be reopened to new students, but that appears unlikely given the language in the appropriations bill and general Democratic opposition to vouchers.

More than 1,700 students participated in the program in the 2008-09 school year. That number dropped to 1,319 this year because applications were closed to new students in the spring, and some students have graduated or left the program. President Obama has expressed support for keeping the program open only to current students.

Congressional Democrats have suggested that if there is local support for an expanded voucher program, the District should enact such a program itself. A spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said that he supported the federal voucher program but that because of the economy, "funding does not exist locally."

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