- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

D.C. parents said Thursday that they are prepared to rally against a Capitol Hill proposal to end a voucher program that helps 1,700 students from low-income families attend private schools.

“With all the programs that don’t work, we’re frustrated that this - one that does work - is being proposed to end,” said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice. “Right now, we’re preparing to fight and we’re hoping not to fail.”

The $410 billion spending bill that the House passed Wednesday states that federal money from the Opportunity Scholarship Program will end in 2010 and should be used only for students now in the program. It also instructs D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to “promptly take steps to minimize potential disruption and ensure smooth transition” for returning students - unless Congress and the D.C. Council reauthorize the program.

The D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test from 2007 showed that 46 percent of elementary school students in the city were proficient in reading and 40 percent were proficient in math. The numbers were slightly worse in secondary schools. Despite recent improvements, the 235-school system remains among the lowest performers in the country.

A Rhee spokesman said the chancellor is not taking a stand on the issue and directed calls to the mayor’s office.

However, her office released this statement in October after Mr. Obama mentioned her in a debate: “Mayor [Adrian M.] Fenty and Chancellor Rhee strongly believe that all families in the District of Columbia must have access to excellent public school options and are committed to ensuring that students in every ward are afforded this opportunity. While Chancellor Rhee hasn’t taken a formal position on vouchers, she disagrees with the notion that vouchers are the remedy for repairing the city’s school system.”

Officials from the mayor’s office and the Washington Teachers Union did not return calls for comment.

Reauthorization of the five-year, Republican-sponsored program is unlikely because Democrats control the White House and Congress.

Archdiocese of Washington spokeswoman Susan Gibbs expressed little hope that Congress would reconsider.

“Reauthorization takes a year or more,” she said. “Children don’t have time to put their education on hold while Congress debates their future.”

Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Louisiana, Utah and Wisconsin are among U.S. states that have voucher programs, but only the District’s is federally funded.

The average annual income for those using the program is $23,000 for a family of four, and roughly 99 percent of the students are minorities. The maximum scholarship is $7,500 a child.

The House bill also included a request from President Obama, whose daughters attend the private Sidwell Friends School, for a one-time federal payment of $20 million for public schools.

The $54 million in the bill for D.C. schools is broken down as $20 million for public schools, $20 million for public charter schools and $14 million for the voucher program. The legislation states that the city must submit a “detailed budget proposal” within 60 days of passage.

D.C. parent Joe Kelley has four children in the program, including a 16-year-old son two years from high school graduation.

“I don’t ever want to hear him say, ‘I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,’ ” he said. “Before my kids got into this program, there was no hope of college because I couldn’t trust the system and I was very involved in the schools.”

Ms. Gibbs said that 67 percent of 212 students at St. Augustine in Northwest rely on the voucher money and that 48 percent of the 165 students at Holy Redeemer in Northwest need the money.

She said the voucher covers the annual tuition of $4,000 to $4,900 as well as extras such as uniforms and after-school programs.

“This and other programs that allow choice in education have lifted children out of seemingly hopeless environments,” a 17-year-old student named Jordan says in one video.

The Education Department recently released its first evaluation of the program, which showed that voucher students after 19 months of instruction performed slightly better academically than those not receiving voucher money.

Mrs. Walden Ford said she and others are setting up meetings with members of Congress but have not organized beyond that.

“We haven’t gotten to that point yet,” she said. “We do not want to think that far.”

• Gary Emerling and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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