- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Education Secretary Rod Paige and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams formally began the country’s first federally funded school-voucher program yesterday by signing a five-year agreement to implement the school-choice plan in the District.

The two leaders agreed to find an interim, community nonprofit group to start reaching out to D.C. parents with children in poorly performing public schools who might want private-school tuition vouchers this fall under the new $14 million program recently enacted by Congress.

The interim group would handle “time-sensitive matters, the delay of which would adversely affect the successful launching of the program for the 2004-2005 school year,” Mr. Paige, a Republican, and Mr. Williams, a Democrat, said in a nine-page memorandum of understanding.

“Such activities may include outreach to parents, private schools and the larger D.C. community,” says the memo.

A group called D.C. Parents for School Choice, a major backer of the D.C. voucher law passed by Congress on Jan. 22, has been conducting these activities in 13 public-housing projects in the city.

The voucher program is designed to provide an escape for poor children trapped in poorly performing schools. Qualified students can apply for private-school vouchers worth up to $7,500.

Education Department officials said they expect a notice to be published today in the Federal Register inviting applications from eligible D.C. nonprofits to run the program.

An administrative group will be selected through a competitive peer-review process to organize a lottery to choose school-voucher winners, officials said.

“Many parents and private schools are eager to avail themselves of this program,” Tony Bullock, the mayor’s spokesman, said yesterday. “Our job is to cut through the bureaucracy and get them together.”

“Within one year, we want to be up to full utilization. We need to tailor this program to meet the needs of the District,” Mr. Bullock said.

Mr. Paige said, “Our goal is to continue our partnership with the mayor, school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and councilman Kevin Chavous to make this program a reality for the coming school year. We know it will be a success.”

Groups applying to run the voucher program must describe the lottery system they would use to make random selections of applicants in the event that the scholarship program is oversubscribed, the memo says.

They also must describe a lottery system for making random admissions of scholarship recipients to each participating school if the school is oversubscribed.

The lottery must be designed to ensure that the maximum number of student applicants possible obtain vouchers, the memo says.

Priority must be given to voucher applicants “whose families lack the financial resources to take advantage of available educational options.”

Student applicants will get “extra weight” if they attend a D.C. school “identified for school improvement, corrective action, or restructuring” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the agreement says.

Efforts of congressional opponents to prevent passage of the D.C. voucher program, ultimately wrapped into an omnibus appropriations bill, forced tight deadlines on department and D.C. officials. Private schools already are accepting applications for fall of this year, and most will have chosen students by spring.

The voucher program “will give low-income parents in the District more options for the education of their children and will provide the nation with a unique opportunity to test and evaluate the impact of enhanced educational choices,” the agreement says.

Nina S. Rees, education deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement, was named as the department’s lead official to implement the voucher program and its evaluation. Kelvin Robinson, the mayor’s chief of staff, was given “lead responsibility for carrying out cooperative activities with the department.”

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