Congress Considers Cutting D.C. School Voucher Program

With more families choosing charter schools, the voucher option is losing political favor

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President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appear to be favoring charter schools over vouchers in the requirements school systems have to meet to collect additional funding from the federal government. Duncan has spoken against vouchers, saying that they usually serve only 1 to 2 percent of the students in a community and that the federal government, local governments, and local school districts must be "more ambitious than that."

But some education advocacy and reform groups, citing the $100 billion in education monies appropriated under last year's economic stimulus package, have challenged that argument. They say the voucher program represents but a single drop of water in an ocean of federal spending.

"We have vouchers for cars through the 'cash for clunkers' program," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform. "We have housing vouchers. We have day-care vouchers."

It is possible for voucher programs and charter schools to coexist. Says Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, "There's nothing in supporting charters as a form of parent choice that should work against any other form of parent choice." Indeed, vouchers provide low-income families who are seeking a religious option a choice they would not be able to get from a charter school. "There are certain children who are only going to be saved by a faith-based school," says John Kirtley, chairman of the nonprofit Florida School Choice Fund.

In the District of Columbia, there is evidence that the federal voucher pro­gram is delivering results. An independent evaluation mandated by the government has revealed that students in the program are making academic gains in reading. (An improvement in math scores was deemed statistically insignificant.) A separate Georgetown University survey has shown that parents overwhelmingly support the program and feel it provides a safe, high-quality education for their children.

Students appear to be enthusiastic about the opportunities the OSP has provided them. Mercedes Campbell, a senior at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, says that before vouchers enabled her to switch schools, she was bored and felt disengaged from her studies. "I see things differently now," she says. "I've been given a good foundation, and I feel I can always refer back to what I learned here."

Parents like Ingrid Campbell say that they will keep putting pressure on lawmakers and President Obama to save D.C.'s vouchers. "My middle child is the one I'm fighting for all the way, because I might have to put her back in public school next year if we lose the vouchers," she says. "I would get two or three jobs to keep her in her private school."

Corrected on 12/18/09: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that reauthorization of the voucher program needed Sen. Dick Durbin’s sign-off to move forward.