DC vouchers gain new momentum

The voucher program in the nation’s capital, though small, holds outsize symbolic importance, in part because it’s the only private school choice program directly overseen by Congress. While its future looked uncertain after it wasn’t renewed late last year, it seems to have picked up new momentum. 

This week, in a letter to congressional leaders, Mayor Muriel Bowser and eight members of Washington’s city council said they support the “three-sector” approach of the SOAR Act, federal legislation that links funding for the district’s charter and traditional public schools with the re-authorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

In the letter, released by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office, the city officials wrote:

The SOAR Act provides equal amounts of federal funding for the [District of Columbia Public Schools], public charter schools and the [voucher program]. We understand that these funding streams are inextricably linked. We urge you to ensure that the SOAR Reauthorization Act (S. 2171/H.R. 10) becomes law before the end of this Congress so that this critical funding for K -12 education in the District of Columbia is not put in jeopardy.

In a statement, Ryan welcomed the city officials’ support.

“When we give more families a choice, more students succeed,” he said. “This initiative embodies the American Idea—the notion that the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life. The support of Mayor Bowser and most of the city council gives this legislation an important boost as we work to get it to the president’s desk.”

The legislation was introduced late last year by outgoing Speaker John Boehner, and is considered part of his legacy.

Key city officials endorsed the private school scholarship program when it was created in 2004, but opponents of the program had seized on current officials’ reticence to argue it should be allowed to expire.

The vouchers have helped some 6,000 low-income students afford private school tuition, and evaluations of the program found that while it did not significantly change their test scores, it increased their chances of graduating high school and enrolling in college.

In their March 7 letter, the D.C. city officials also wrote they were “very concerned” about new federal legislation, by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and others, that would create publicly funded education savings accounts in the nation’s capital.