Future of D.C. School Choice in Doubt

More than 1,800 disadvantaged children in Washington, D.C., are now using federally funded tuition scholarships to attend private schools. But as the scholarship program’s congressional reauthorization approaches, whether these children will have that opportunity in the future is uncertain.   

In 2004, President Bush signed legislation to create the D.C. opportunity scholarship program, which offered tuition scholarships worth up to $7,500 for students from families with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line for a family of four. Students receiving scholarships can attend any of 66 participating private schools.   

Now in its third year, the program aids 1,800 students from families with an average income of $21,100, or 106% of the poverty line. These students’ families are some of the most disadvantaged in the community.  

The scholarships have proven popular among parents. According to the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit that administers the program, nearly 6,500 students have applied for scholarships over the past three years, or about three applicants for each scholarship slot. In all, about 11% of eligible low-income students have applied.  

So far, studies of the program’s results have been encouraging. A 2005 Georgetown University study found that many parents reported that their children “became more confident, performed better academically, and possessed increased enthusiasm after joining” the opportunity scholarship program.   

A 2006 Manhattan Institute report suggested that the program would promote racial integration, as participating students would likely use their scholarships to leave more segregated public schools to attend more integrated private schools.   

Next year, the most important evaluation of the program will be released. This study will determine whether the program is having an academic impact on participating children. To date, eight similar studies have evaluated similar programs across the country, comparing the test scores of students receiving vouchers to a control group of peers who remained in public school. Every one of these studies has shown some positive academic effect for participating students.  

But even positive test scores will not ensure the D.C. voucher program’s future. If the past is prologue, the voucher program could face an uphill political battle in the next Congress when it comes due for reauthorization.   

In the last Congress, the D.C. voucher plan passed with narrow support. The House passed the measure by a vote of 205 to 203, splitting largely along party lines. All but 14 Republicans voted in favor; all but four Democrats voted against.  

With such a slim majority, the voucher program’s future will be in doubt no matter which party controls the next Congress. Whether it is reauthorized will likely hinge on whether it can attract more support from Democrats. That remains an open question.  

Historically, liberals have opposed private school choice programs. In 1998, President Clinton vetoed legislation to create a D.C. school choice program. In all, 188 House Democrats voted against the D.C. voucher plan. Both soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) have consistent records of opposing vouchers.  

But in recent years, a growing number of Democrats have supported private school choice. The D.C. voucher program itself passed thanks to support from a few prominent Democrats like Senators Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rep. Harold Ford (D.-Tenn.). Their support helped fuel bipartisan support for school choice proposals nationwide.  

In 2006, a record number of Democratic lawmakers in state capitals sponsored or supported private school choice plans. And Democratic governors in Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have agreed to create or expand school choice options.

The looming reauthorization debate for the D.C. opportunity scholarship program is important because it will force members of Congress to affirm their position on school choice. They will have to decide whether to end a popular program that’s helping 1,800 disadvantaged kids. Their answer will have a big impact on the lives of these students and millions of their peers across the nation.