- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

Demand for the nation’s first federally funded school voucher program has proved overwhelming, officials said yesterday.

The Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF) said it had 2,650 applications from D.C. students seeking to leave the city’s troubled public schools. The number of applications is more than double the number of spaces available.

About 1,720 of the students are eligible under residence and income guidelines. Plans call for about 1,000 scholarships to be awarded by lottery to students who attended public schools this year, or will be entering kindergarten in the fall.

Congress is providing up to $7,500 per year to help low-income students attend one of 50 private or parochial schools in the city. A total of 1,264 slots are available for the upcoming school year.

“The legislative intent was to expand the number of children exercising school choice,” said Sally Sachar, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Scholarship Fund, which has a contract to administer the $14 million federally funded program.

Only 60 slots are for high school programs, falling 40 percent short of demand. On Thursday, a lottery will be held to determine which eligible public school students receive aid.

WSF also administers a privately funded scholarship program for about 1,000 D.C. students attending schools in the District and its suburbs in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. A computerized lottery will be held to select 200 current private school students to receive aid under the new program.

Students will be tested later this month to determine which schools fit their needs and at what grade level they should be admitted.

Forty-four percent of the participating schools are operated by the Archdiocese of Washington, and 30 percent are private nonreligious schools. They include the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, attended by children of diplomats, politicians, and government officials. There are also Montessori, Christian, Islamic and Baptist schools on the list. They are located in each of the District’s eight wards.

“We’re trying to get them into schools that they can get to,” said Miss Sachar.

The participating schools have tuition rates of $3,000 to $22,415 per year. In most cases, the schools have committed to waiving costs exceeding the federal grant limit, or providing additional financial aid.

Several additional schools have expressed interest in participating next year when they can accommodate the program under their aid structure. That could allow the WSF to offer funding to 500 to 800 additional students, Miss Sachar said.

The WSF received the contract to run the program 79 days ago. During a 21-day application period, families were required to submit complete financial statements. Income levels for a family of four could not exceed $36,000 a year.

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