Last week’s congressional and White House approval of a budget that includes the $100 million, five-year renewal of a D.C. school-choice program is stirring controversy between local officials, unions and residents.

Detractors say the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which provides private school vouchers for low-income District students, has not borne the promised fruit and siphons off funds that can be used to nurture the city’s public and public charter schools. Proponents, however, argue the program boosts student scores and makes available better learning environments for disadvantaged children, and say it has been unjustly dragged through partisan turmoil.

Incepted in 2004, the program became the first in the nation to provide low-income students with federally funded K-12 scholarships of up to $7,500 to cover private school tuition. But the program came to a halt in spring 2009 when Democrats killed its reauthorization amid reports questioning its outcomes.

“Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that the D.C. program has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C,” said the Obama administration.

The 2010 U.S. Department of Education’s “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program Final Report” slightly supports the statement. After four years, there were “no statistically significant impacts on overall student achievement in reading and math after at least four years,” according to the report.

Now revived by Republicans, who have long championed the program as an example of “school choice,” the initiative is being decried by local leaders such as Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes (D-D.C.) as not only unneeded, but also a setback to the city’s self-determination.

“I acknowledge that people of goodwill can and do disagree about vouchers. What is unconscionable to me, however, is what this program’s continuation represents,” Gray said in a statement right after the vote. “And what it represents is the use of the District and her 600,000 residents, once again, as bargaining chips in political negotiations and guinea pigs for the favorite social experiments of important congressional leaders.”

Gray also said that with 52 charter schools operating on 98 campuses across the District, the city has one of the more of the nation’s most robust public school-choice systems.

Other dissenters argue the plan defies the constitutional division between church and state.

Before passage of the legislation, 14 representatives from local D.C. organizations —including President Nathan Saunders of the Washington Teacher’s Union—wrote a letter to congressional lawmakers voicing disapproval. Alluding to church-run private schools, the letter stated, “Using taxpayer funds to support religious education and to empower churches to expand their religious outreach is contrary to basic American values.”

But supporters of the measure, such as Virginia Walden Ford, executive director for the DC Parents for School Choice, said this program is about opening the doors of opportunity. Students should not be denied the “best education” due to financial struggles, she said.

“The OSP is about all options being on the table,” said Ford, who added she felt compelled to become the voice of school-choice after sending her son through the program. “The OSP is about ensuring that children from low-income families have the same educational opportunities as their higher-income peers.”

Ford said she believed parents’ success stories struck a chord with legislators, aiding the passage of the bill. Stories like that of Shelia Jackson, who said she has been pleased with her daughter’s progress since her enrollment in the fifth grade. “I’ve seen a great improvement…I’m glad that I was able to put her somewhere that works for her,” the mother said.

Disabled and on a fixed income, Jackson said she wanted to put her daughter in a different school than the one that was close to where she lived. “The school was a failing school and no longer exists,” she said. “She was not doing well in math.”

The Education Department’s evaluation offered no clear distinction in math and reading scores between students who received vouchers and their public and public charter school peers. Patrick Wolf, the principal investigator of the report, said there were a slight increase in achievement—for certain students. “The program appears to have increased reading achievement modestly, especially for certain subgroups or students, but there is some uncertainty associated with that finding,” Wolf said.

Still, the program did report other gains.

Dropout rates were reported to be lower. “The offer of an OSP scholarship raised students’ probability of graduating by 12 percentage points and the use of a scholarship by 21 percentage points,” according to the report.

And, students who were offered or used the scholarships were slightly more likely to graduate, a finding Wolf deemed “very important.”

“The change is important because graduating from high school instead of dropping out is associated with a large number of positive life outcomes including… a lower likelihood of experiencing unemployment and incarceration,” he said, later calling the program the “most effective drop-out prevention program ever rigorously evaluated by the U.S. Department of Education.”

Lindsey Burke, the education policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the vouchers program has a long-range, corporate effect.

“School choice has a community effect,” she said. “We’ve worked very closely with parents who received the voucher…Most of them have many offers to college.”

In the Georgetown University School Choice Demonstration Project, the study shows that overall, parents who have their child enrolled in the third year of the program are satisfied. “The majority of parents expressed general satisfaction with the OSP,” it read.

But, there were also a few concerns the study said was important to mention. The “availability of slots at the higher grade levels,” was difficult for those who wanted to enroll in the program again. Parents sometimes felt that there was a “degree of stigmatization” when students were identified as “scholarship student ” at meetings.

One parent said they felt pressured to join the religious affiliation of the private school. However, the study notes these concerns to be “infrequent and isolated events.”

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Erica Butler

AFRO Staff Writer