THE ORGANIZATION that administers the federal school voucher program in the District has received 1,825 applications this year. The largest share, 25.6 percent or 468 applications, comes from Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River. The smallest, 0.8 percent or 15 families, is from Ward 3 in Northwest. It makes sense that demand is greatest where public schools are worst and families can’t afford private school or are unable to move to where the public schools are better. What doesn’t make sense is the desire — particularly among some D.C. elected officials — to try to kill off this program, thus denying low-income parents a choice that is taken for granted by those who are more affluent.
Thankfully, it appears the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, created by Congress in 2004, will continue to receive federal funds. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week advanced a bill to renew the program, and it is clear that Republican control of the White House, in addition to Congress, removes any threat to its future. Given that political reality — as well as the fact that support for vouchers is twinned with extra federal funding for the city’s public (charter and traditional) schools — it’s perplexing that a majority of the D.C. Council signed on to a letter seeking to derail the program. Just a year ago, a council majority (albeit consisting of different members) joined Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in support of continued funding. Not signing the new letter, to their credit, were Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large).
The latest letter seeks to frame vouchers as not needed, or, in the words of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), “particularly unnecessary” because of overall improvements in public education. Yes, the school system is on the mend and a burgeoning charter movement does offer some choice. But there are still low-income and minority students — too many of them — trapped in underperforming schools, as the application roster makes clear. Their parents want what every parent wants: good schools that will create opportunity and lead to success. It is not enough to tell them to take a chance on applying to a quality charter or to commute to a school out of boundary or to wait for their neighborhood school to improve.
The scholarship program is an alternative, currently helping 1,154 students. That more are likely to benefit with renewed federal funding that doesn’t take a dime away from public schools is welcome news. Just ask those 468 families in Ward 8.