Giving Thanks for School Choice in the Nation's Capital

More than 1,700 children in the nation’s capital have an extra reason to be thankful this year. They are the lucky students participating in the landmark D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. This program, created by Congress in 2004, provides low-income families with the freedom to choose private schools for their children, thanks to scholarships worth $7,500 apiece.

In October, researchers at Georgetown University released the first report on the impact that the D.C. voucher program has had on participating families. This study—based on focus group interviews with the families—found that parents and students alike were very satisfied with their experience in the scholarship program. Parents reported that their children had improved academically and showed more confidence and enthusiasm for learning.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, a Democrat and leading champion of vouchers in the District, was quick to tout the report’s findings. “The students are thriving, and the parents are very enthusiastic and involved,” he explained. “The study results underscore the critical importance of school choice.”

That parents and children alike are pleased with the scholarship program should come as no surprise. One high school student participating in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program recently explained what it meant to his future: “It gave you a way out of nowhere. You’re not the one with the killer jump-shot, but you’re still trying to go somewhere and go to school and get away from this environment and you’ve got that opportunity to use your scholarship.”

A parent of elementary school children participating in the program also recognized the unique opportunity: “This is what I tell my kids: I tell them that this is an opportunity to strive, do your best, take advantage of it—that’s what I tell my children.”

It’s no wonder that these families are thankful. Without a scholarship, many children would have no choice but to return to failing public schools. The Department of Education estimates that about half of the children participating in the program came from public schools classified as “needing improvement” under the No Child Left Behind law.

But the Opportunity Scholarship program could also use some improvement. For almost every student who is able to participate, another student is denied the chance. According to the Washington Scholarship Fund, which manages the voucher program, 1.7 applicants applied for each available scholarship, proving that demand for school choice far exceeds supply.

That demand is echoed across the county. The thankful D.C. scholarship recipients join the growing number of children throughout the nation—more than 100,000 during the 2005-06 school year—who have also been empowered to choose their schools through means like vouchers and tax credits.

For example, parents in Milwaukee have been using school vouchers to send their children to private schools for fifteen years. That program began with just 341 children in 1990 and is now helping more than 15,000. Thousands more families in Milwaukee want to participate, but Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have raised the cap on the number of children receiving vouchers. A 2004 study by the Manhattan Institute found that students participating in the Milwaukee voucher program were more likely to graduate on time than their peers in public school.

Every year, more children are participating in school choice programs. This year, the Utah state legislature enacted a scholarship program for children who are eligible for special education services. Meanwhile, Ohio expanded its Cleveland school voucher program to allow 14,000 more children from low-income families all across the state to receive school vouchers and escape their failing public schools. The new vouchers will be available next year.

Slowly but surely, school choice is spreading across the nation. Next year, dozens of states will consider creating new school choice programs. If they follow through, thousands more families will have another reason to be thankful at this time next year.