White House relents on D.C. school voucher bill

Deal with lawmakers lifts enrollment cap

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Mr. Gray, a Democrat, said true school choice lies with a robust system of traditional public schools and charter schools. When federal lawmakers struck a deal on D.C. vouchers in 2011, Mr. Gray accused Congress of using city residents as “bargaining chips in political negotiations and guinea pigs for the favorite social experiments of important congressional leaders.”

“The Congress has said that the city will have a voucher program, and we’ll move forward to continue to implement it,” Mr. Gray told The Washington Times on Wednesday. “But I really believe that the future lies in having a strong public education system.”

For nearly a decade, the program has straddled the delicate fault line between federal oversight of the nation’s capital and the District’s self-governance, although mixed views among city politicians make the vouchers a more complex issue than typical disputes over D.C. home rule. Former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, a Democrat and early champion for the program, has continued to voice support for the scholarship program and even tested the city’s unflagging loyalty to Mr. Obama with a series of ads that criticized the Democratic president’s stance on the scholarships.

“The program’s been an incredible success,” Mr. Chavous said in a phone interview. “The only thing that’s gotten in the way is politics.”

Mr. Gray said school choice is alive and well in the District, with enrollment in public charter schools surpassing 40 percent of the city’s public student body - 41 percent in public charters and 59 percent in D.C. Public Schools - for the first time during the past year.

“I would love to see them invest [available federal funding] in our charters and our traditional D.C. Public Schools,” Mr. Gray said of Congress.

Meanwhile, local officials are knee-deep in applications for the federally backed voucher program. The trust that administers the scholarships recently passed its first major deadline for the 2012-13 school year, and Mr. Davies said the new agreement could allow the trust to offer more awards this year among the applications it has received.

More than 1,600 students enrolled in 53 participating schools through the voucher program in the 2011-12 school year. Among them, 87 percent were black and 11 percent were Hispanic. Students from east of the Anacostia River accounted for more than 43 percent of participating students, and the average household incomefor enrollees citywide was $23,401 in 2010.

High school students can receive up to $12,000 in assistance per year; middle school and elementary school students are eligible for up to $8,000. The students attend a variety of institutions, including prep schools, for-profit private schools and an array of Catholic schools, according to the trust.

During the past school year, 816 recipients of the scholarships attended 18 Catholic schools in the District, Archdiocese of Washington spokeswoman Brie Hall said. The archdiocese praised Monday’s announcement as “significant for the children of the District of Columbia” because it allows low-income families to “choose the school that best fits their child’s needs.”

“Access to quality education should not be denied because of one’s income or residence,” Ms. Hall said.

The archdiocese, which said its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill were limited to letters of support from its superintendent of schools Deacon Bert L’Homme, praised Mr. Boehner’s work to resuscitate the program last year as “a promising step forward for education in the District of Columbia.”

But the mayor rallied with education and civil rights leaders in April 2011 to denounce the program as another form of federal interference into local affairs.

His views stood in contrast to those of then-council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, who spoke in support of the program and positioned himself as an education reformer during his tenure on the council. He resigned in disgrace this month and pleaded guilty to bank fraud and a campaign-finance violation that stemmed from his 2008 re-election as an at-large member of the council.

A spokeswoman for the newly appointed chairman, Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said the council leader is “with Mayor Gray on this one.”

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