School Choice Debate Returnes to the District
||Wednesday, January 26, 2011
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) today will introduce legislation to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, reigniting the debate over the District's school voucher program.
The program began in 2004 as the first federally funded private school voucher program in the United States. However, incoming students in the 2010-2011 school year were not allowed to receive the federal vouchers of up to $7,500 to attend private schools in the District after the Obama administration pulled funding for the program (though students from low-income families were eligible for the scholarships). In 2009, 1,700 students took part in the program. More than 500 of those kids attended D.C. schools in the Consortium of Catholic Academies.
"Your economic background, the condition of the neighborhood in which you live, shouldn't keep you from getting a good education," says Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington.
Wuerl and four eighth-grade students who were recipients of D.C. Opportunity Scholarships were invited by Boehner to attend Tuesday’s State of the Union address as his guests. They were joined by teachers and advocates for school choice programs.
"The fact that they've been invited to sit in the gallery at a State of the Union address has to say to them, have confidence in yourself,” Wuerl said on Tuesday. “Study hard, work hard and who knows? Maybe someday you'll be sitting in one of those benches on the floor."
“It's a great environment to grow up. It's safe. Everyone is close to each other,” says Lesly Alvarez, 14, one of the invited students, who has attended a CCA school on an Opportunity Scholarship. “It's like a big family.”
But the value of the voucher program has been questioned. A Department of Education report done after the first year of the program found no evidence of a statistically significant difference in test scores between students who were given Opportunity Scholarships and kids who were not. What the study did find, however, was that school choice in the District improved parents’ feelings about the education their children were receiving.
Wuerl said the impact of school choice on students isn’t just evident through statistics.
"I think the hope we provide is the one thing, the one intangible ingredient,” Wuerl said. “Hope that touches their hearts and sheds light on their future."
In early 2010, Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) tried to reintroduce the voucher program, but their measure died in the Senate.