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D.C. VOUCHER PROGRAM APPEARS LIKELY: Congressional Republican Leaders Roll Measure into Omnibus Bill

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"People in the sports world are fond of saying that the best offense is a good defense. I am convinced, however, that the best way for us to win this game and beat our critics is to get off of defense and put some points on the board. Raise student performance. Increase achievement. Narrow gaps. And beat the naysayers."

A private-school voucher program for District of Columbia students was all but guaranteed when members of the Republican leadership decided to roll the $13 million program into the fiscal 2004 omnibus bill, a measure that is almost certain to receive final approval from Congress. The voucher program-a top priority for President Bush and congressional Republicans-was supported by Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D), who worked closely with the Republican leadership in shepherding the bill through Congress.

Under the five-year pilot program, at least 1,700 low-income students would receive up to $7,500 annually toward tuition at private schools. These “opportunity scholarships” would be limited to children from families who earn up to 185 percent of the poverty level-approximately $35,000 for a family of four. Priority would be given to students who currently attend low-performing schools.

Lack of Vacancies in Area High Schools Mean Few Older Students Will Be Offered Vouchers

According to the Washington Post, lack of available space in district private high schools could pose a problem in implementing the new initiative. The voucher program gives priority to students who attend schools deemed “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In the District, 8,700 students attend the city’s 15 low-performing schools, seven of which are high schools. Of the 8,700 students, 5,200 are in high school. A survey by Fight for Children, a Washington education advocacy group, found that only about 1,000 of the vacancies at the 30 archdiocese schools and 31 non-Catholic private schools in the district are in the upper grades. This means that only one in five eligible high schools students will have the voucher option. A random selection will determine which students will receive scholarships.

People in the sports world are fond of saying that the best offense is a good defense. I am convinced, however, that the best way for us to win this game and beat our critics is to get off of defense and put some points on the board. Raise student performance. Increase achievement. Narrow gaps. And beat the naysayers.We will never win by just blocking vouchers and pleading for more money-although both of those things need to be done. We have moved from the struggle for universal access to the challenge of universal proficiency. The paradigm has shifted on us.

Nobody fought the great civil rights battles of the last century for access to mediocrity. They fought them for access to excellence. And if we use our collective resources and best thinking to the challenges we face, then we will have won the real battle for public education. And we will have done it for all our kids.

–Michael Casserly, Executive Director, Council of the Great City Schools, in a speech to Scholastic’s Superintendents Literacy Leadership Summit, September 18, 2003

 

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