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WebMemo #404 on Education

January 26, 2004

Congress Establishes First Federal Voucher Program for D.C. Students

By and

Acting at the request of Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams and other city officials, parents, and students, Congress passed the first federal voucher program for students in the District of Columbia as part of the 2004 appropriations omnibus. Although these vouchers will provide a little over half of the per-pupil expense in public schools, research shows that children using similar vouchers do as well or better than those who remain in public schools. Moreover, parental satisfaction increases under such programs, and public schools improve in the competitive environment created through parental choice programs. The study required as part of the D.C. voucher program will undoubtedly find similar results.

Room to Improve

The new program will provide $13 million to offer vouchers to nearly 1,700 Washington, D.C., students from families whose annual income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. The vouchers will be worth up to $7,500, a little more than half of the approximately $12,000 spent per pupil in public schools. A private organization will monitor the results of the program.

Currently, District students lag far behind national averages in achievement. Only 7 percent of District fourth- and eight-grade students scored at or above the proficient level on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests, and only 10 percent scored at this level on the reading assessments. To put this in context nationally, more than 30 percent of students score at the proficient level in both subjects.

A Growing Trend

The District joins eleven states or districts that have voucher or tax credit parental choice laws. Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida, Colorado, Maine and Vermont have voucher programs, and Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania allow taxpayers to receive a credit for education expenses or contributions to organizations that provide scholarships.

Milwaukee is the largest and oldest urban voucher program with over 13,000 students. Research has found that both participants and non-participants benefit because the program spurs improvements in the public system.

The newest voucher program was enacted last year in Colorado and has the potential to serve as many as 20,000 students when fully implemented. Like other new voucher programs, the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program is under legal attack by opponents. Voucher and tax credit programs usually survive such challenges. Most recently, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of the Cleveland voucher program in 2002.

While the D.C. program is small in comparison to other public voucher programs, its presence in the nation's capital means all eyes will be on these District students as they take this new opportunity to succeed. As state legislative sessions begin, the D.C. initiative provides an example of bipartisan support for families and students that other legislators should follow. Whether in the capital or the heartland, every parent should be able to choose the best schools for their children.

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