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Enrollment fails to keep pace with D.C. voucher funds

School-choice program: More cash, fewer students

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A decision this year to add nearly $5 million in funding for federal vouchers that help low-income families in the District send their children to private schools is not guaranteed to result in higher enrollment under the program than last school year, according to preliminary data.

Congress followed through on a highly touted deal with the Obama administration in June to fully fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program at $20 million, jump-starting the initiative after years of waning enthusiasm for the program during the first years of the president's term. So far, 1,584 students have been placed in private schools through the program for the current school year, according to the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corp., a public-private partnership that administers the program.

But the figure falls shy of the 1,615 students who used vouchers to enroll in private schools during the 2011-2012 school year, despite the budgetary boost contained in the summer agreement brokered between two proponents of the program, House Speaker John A. Boehner and Sen. Joe Lieberman, and the Obama administration.

Officials said placement under the program will continue through the school year and could, theoretically, eclipse last year's tally or even exceed the Obama administration's target of 1,700 enrollees, since the trust made 1,808 scholarship available.

"It's more of a demand issue," said Ed Davies, interim executive director of the trust. "It's just a matter of how many families get placed."

Officials said it was not uncommon for some students to find a private-school placement midway through the school year, such as the start of the spring semester. Final enrollment figures for the 2012-2013 school year will not be available until next fall, when the trust can assess how many payments were issued through the program.

A spokesman for Mr. Boehner attributed the enrollment level, in part, to last-minute instructions from the Obama administration on how to handle certain students. He said the speaker will continue to "ensure that the maximum number of students are awarded scholarships as funds will allow."

"In short, we are disappointed in the final numbers, but are pleased that new students continue to receive scholarships and the evaluation has begun," spokesman Kevin Smith said. "The lower turnout was due to policy changes communicated at the last minute to the D.C. Trust by the Department of Education on how it would handle those students who had previously attended a private school but were now applying for a scholarship."

Congress established the federal voucher program in 2004, a first-of-its-kind effort for D.C. parents who wanted to send their disadvantaged children to Catholic schools or other private options instead of struggling public schools. The program has been a point of political contention since then, with critics questioning its impact on student achievement and calling on governments to focus their resources on public schools.

Proponents of the program point to the explosion of school-choice initiatives around the country as a positive force for lifting children out of difficult academic settings. In the District, scholarships this year increased from $12,000 to $12,205 for high school students and from $8,000 to $8,136 for middle- and elementary-school students, according to the trust.

Based on the number of awards that have been offered, the agreement between Congress and the federal Department of Education has already expanded the D.C. voucher program and marked a reversal from Mr. Obama's initial stance on the scholarships. The president did not include any funding for the scholarship program in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal, part of a trend by his administration since 2009 to phase out the program by funding only existing enrollees.

The Obama administration took a mild view of last summer's deal. Rather than an open-ended program, officials said they wanted to increase enrollment from 1,615 to about 1,700 students for the coming year to allow for a "statistically valid evaluation of the program, as directed by Congress." So far, enrollment has fallen 116 students short of that mark.

"Congress has given the trust the resources it needs to expand the program, and we've given them all the technical support and assistance required of us by law," said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Department of Education. "While we've agreed to carry out a congressionally mandated scientific study of the program's effectiveness, the administration still opposes voucher programs because we believe every child deserves a world-class education."

Supporters of the D.C. voucher program say $20 million in funding is mandated by the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act of 2011, which Mr. Obama signed during a budget standoff in the spring of 2011. The legislation — which Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Mr. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, shepherded to passage — renewed the scholarship program for five years and mandated that an annual federal payment of $60 million be split in equal thirds among the program, D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools in the District.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, has opposed the voucher program, arguing that true school choice lies with a robust system of traditional public schools and public charter schools.

"Decisions about education options in the District of Columbia ought to be made at the local level, just as those choice are made across this nation," Mr. Gray's spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said Monday. "This is, and has always been, an issue of self-determination."

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, has backed the mayor's views on the program. Yet his predecessor as the head of the council, Kwame R. Brown, supported the program and positioned himself as an education reformer before resigning in June and pleading guilty to bank fraud and a campaign-finance violation that stemmed from his 2008 re-election as an at-large member of the council.

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