‘Year of educational choice’ ends on a down note for D.C. vouchers; what now?

The year of educational choice — which saw a record number of scholarship programs created or expanded in states across the country — came to a disappointing end at the federal level. Last week, Congress approved an omnibus spending plan that leaves a closely watched voucher program in the nation’s capital in limbo.

Former House Speaker John Boehner has been a key backer of the voucher program.
Former House Speaker John Boehner has been a key backer of the D.C. voucher program.

This is far from a fatal blow to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, since Congress has another year to reauthorize the program before it expires. But it’s still a setback for school choice supporters, who will now have to overcome White House objections to vouchers during an election year.

The D.C. voucher program provided scholarships to more than 1,400 disadvantaged children last school year. It may be small compared to some of its state-level counterparts, but past reauthorizations have taken on outsize political importance, in part because the program falls under Congress’ jurisdiction.

As the Washington Post noted in an editorial, it’s also a shining example of the “three-sector approach” favored by many education reformers.

The program was created in 2004 as part of a three-pronged investment in D.C. public education that funds the vouchers and provides extra allocations of federal dollars to the public school system and public charter schools. Indeed, the three-sector federal approach has brought more than $600 million to D.C. schools, with traditional public schools receiving $239 million, public charter schools $195 million and the voucher program $183 million. The vouchers have allowed thousands of students, predominantly minorities, to attend private schools. Parents of scholarship students have extolled the benefits of school choice and the positive impact of better schooling on their children’s lives. Interest in the program, according to its administrators, has never been higher.

The scholarships have been shown to help raise high school graduation and college-going rates among Washington’s low-income students.

Betsy DeVos, who chairs the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group, said 2015 “left much to be desired at the federal level.” Congress also rebuffed efforts to make federal education funding “portable” for low-income students.

“We look forward to working with Congress in 2016 to meet the demands of low-income families in Washington, DC by reauthorizing the OSP and thinking boldly about leveraging federal dollars in ways that create opportunity and empower families to choose the best educational environment for their children,” she said in a statement.

Things looked rosier just a few months ago. Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner called on his colleagues to support the voucher program in his final radio address, and legislation reauthorizing it won backing from Republicans and at least a few Democrats in both the House and Senate. The program will remain funded this year, meaning there’s still time to regain the momentum that started building this fall.

Avatar photo

BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.