DC Opportunity Scholarship Program Enrolls 300 New Students

More than 1,700 students in the Washington D.C. area will get an opportunity to enroll in a private school this year on the federal government’s dime. Despite strong opposition from teachers unions and education leaders, the D.C. Children & Youth Investment Trust Corp announced that this year nearly 1,500 returning students and about 300 new students, who were selected by lottery, will be able to leave their current school and enroll in a school of their choice. Nearly 75% of students who were selected were previously enrolled in district schools that were rated as under-performing.

The voucher lottery is part of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program created in 2004 in order to allow students from failing District schools to seek out better academic opportunities elsewhere. Although the program has proved popular with both students and their families, the Obama administration has since 2009 attempted to scale it down by refusing to allocate funding for any new program slots in the annual federal budget.

However, House Speaker John A. Boehner proved to be the program’s staunchest advocate in Congress, and, together with Senator Joe Lieberman, managed to get the funding restored by striking a compromise with the U.S. Department of Education. Thanks to his efforts, the program will continue to operate without limiting its enrollment in the coming year.

The administration depicted the pact as more limited in scope than that of Capitol Hill lawmakers, who claimed Mr. Obama had “reversed course” through the agreement. The U.S. Department of Education said that rather than an open-ended program, it wanted to increase enrollment from 1,615 to about 1,700 students for the coming year to allow for a “statistically valid evaluation of the program.”

Justin Hamilton, the spokesman for the DOE, said that while there was an agreement reached that the program could accept a limited number of new pupils, it shouldn’t be used as evidence that the administration’s policy has changed. The President, Hamilton explained, still maintains that the best way to fix the education system in the US is to work on raising the quality of the nation’s public schools rather than funding ways for people to escape them.

It remains to be seen whether final enrollment under the D.C. voucher program will pass the 1,700 mark.

“Not every student who is awarded a scholarship will use it, therefore we won’t have actual enrollment numbers until we issue the first checks for the program in October to know who actually used their scholarship,” said Ed Davies, vice president of external affairs for the trust.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, has opposed the voucher program, arguing that true school choice lies with a robust system of traditional public schools and charter schools.