D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz yesterday criticized a proposal to let students in the District's federal voucher program attend private schools outside the city, saying she will seek a board resolution opposing the measure.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the District, is proposing that change, as well as an increase in the $7,500 annual limit on each voucher. Both proposals are aimed at addressing a shortage of high schools participating in the program, which provides taxpayer-funded grants to help low-income D.C. children pay tuition and other expenses at private or religious schools.
Cafritz said that allowing suburban high schools within three miles of the District to participate, as Brownback has suggested, has the potential to further erode public schools in the city. She also said the change would primarily benefit the Archdiocese of Washington, which operates schools in several Maryland counties as well as the District.
"We feel strongly they shouldn't send our kids outside the city," said Cafritz, who had long opposed private-school vouchers but supported the voucher bill passed by Congress last year. "To send kids outside with public money pushes the envelope to a point beyond what this program was supposed to be."
"The Catholic schools in [Prince George's County] and around the Beltway -- they need population," she added. "This is part of a larger scheme to rescue that system."
Jennifer Reed, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington schools, denied that Catholic officials are pushing the proposal. "We are happy with the program" the way it is, she said. "We haven't been involved in any of the conversations. If there is a proposal, we'd be happy to look at it when it's on the table."
Almost 1,000 students participated in the voucher program in its first year, and enrollment is expected to reach 1,600 this fall.
The changes Brownback is proposing would apply only to voucher recipients at the high school level.
Officials at the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit group that administers the program, said that as many as 80 students who have been offered vouchers for this fall might not be able to use them because of a shortage of high school slots.
Sally Sachar, president and chief executive of the fund, said the shortage will only become worse as voucher students now in elementary and middle schools get older. She said officials project that the number of voucher students in high schools will grow from 201 this fall to 606 in 2008-09, the final year of the five-year pilot program, even with no new scholarships being offered at that age level.
Sachar said increasing the $7,500 voucher limit would encourage more participation among high schools, whose tuition is generally much higher than that amount. She suggested that policymakers could either raise the cap to another set amount, such as $10,000, or link annual increases to the rate of inflation.
Virginia Ann Brooks, president of Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, which is part of the archdiocesan school system, said she would welcome the opportunity to join the voucher program. Brooks said that about 20 percent of the school's students reside in the District and that several of them receive privately funded vouchers under another program run by the Washington Scholarship Fund.
Two Democrats on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Mary Landrieu (La.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), said they oppose Brownback's proposals, which he is considering introducing as an amendment to the D.C. budget bill.
Landrieu said that changing the voucher program midstream might invalidate the findings of a federally mandated evaluation of the program. But officials at the U.S. Department of Education, who are overseeing that evaluation, disagreed.
"For me, I don't see this as a threat to the evaluation. It might make it stronger," said Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the department's Institute of Education Sciences. Rather than having some high school students fall out of the study because they cannot use their vouchers, he said, "we can hold on to students who we expected to be receiving intervention."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.