In its report approving the D.C. spending bill for fiscal 2022, the House Appropriations Committee said it expects the administration to phase out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program — allowing current students to continue but not allowing new students to enroll. The measure is likely to pass the House, setting up a potential fight in the Senate where bipartisan support for the program has helped to stave off past efforts to abolish it, including by the Obama administration.
The cost of the program is modest and well-spent: $17.5 million per year. That is part of a federal funding deal that also directs money to the District’s traditional and charter public schools. Nearly 11,000 scholarships have been awarded since the program was founded in 2004, and at least 91 percent of the graduates are accepted to two- or four-year colleges or universities. That compares with 39 percent of D.C public high school students. Most of the recipients — 92 percent — are African American or Hispanic, and the average annual income for families participating in the program in the 2020-2021 school year was $23,668.
The program, contrary to what you may have heard from opponents, was not foisted on an unwilling city by congressional Republicans, but was backed by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and has been embraced by parents who want the school choice that affluent families take for granted. It takes nothing away from public schools. Indeed, if opponents do succeed in killing off the program, likely gone will be the extra federal monies for the District’s traditional and charter schools, too. Funds the school system uses for teacher training also could fall victim to the teacher unions’ vendetta against vouchers.
It is striking how some foes of the scholarship program — and here we think of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) — see no inconsistency in their opposition to this program and their support for the $40 million DC Tuition Assistance Grant program, which provides funds for college. Like the opportunity scholarship program, DC TAG can be applied to private schools in the metropolitan area, including religious schools, but unlike the opportunity scholarship program, wealthy families (with incomes up to $515,000) are eligible. Where is the logic in supporting a tuition assistance program available to affluent D.C. families and not one that only benefits very low-income D.C. families? To be sure, the quality of the city’s public schools has improved since the program was enacted — perhaps in part due to competition from school choice — but that doesn’t mean that poor parents deserve no choice in where their children go to school.