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.
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
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.