- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Washington Scholarship Fund, which has given private-school scholarships to 2,700 children from needy families in the past decade, will apply next week to administer the District’s new federally funded school-voucher program.

No other D.C.-based nonprofit groups have announced plans to apply.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige yesterday said March 4 is the deadline for groups to apply to administer the $14 million annual voucher program.

During a forum on implementing the program yesterday, Mr. Paige told 300 attendees that his agency will choose the administrator by the end of next month.

Sally J. Sachar, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Scholarship Fund, yesterday announced at the forum that her group would apply.

In enacting the District’s experimental voucher program, Congress required that the majority of the program’s directors and administrators be D.C. residents.

The Washington Scholarship Fund was founded in 1993 by international real-estate tycoon Joseph E. Robert Jr., chairman of the locally based J.E. Robert Cos., and C. Boyden Gray, a city lawyer who served as White House counsel for the first President Bush. The fund awarded private-school scholarships worth up to $2,000 to 1,023 D.C. children this year.

The new D.C. program will award vouchers worth up to $7,500, by lottery if necessary, to an estimated 2,000 children currently attending low-performing or unsafe public schools.

“We’ve entered into uncharted territory,” Mr. Paige told the gathering, which included advocates of school choice who won battles for vouchers in Milwaukee and Dayton, Ohio. “We want D.C. Choice to be a model for the nation.”

He said political opponents will redouble their efforts to undercut the voucher program, even if it succeeds.

But even as the District’s five-year program begins, the education secretary said he will use a $50 million school-choice incentive fund approved by Congress to finance similar voucher experiments in other cities and states.

“This could be educational emancipation,” he said. “The ripple effect might be improvement of the entire school system.”

Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee public schools and founder of that city’s voucher program, said support for public schools and for charter schools and vouchers is “not mutually exclusive. We want D.C. schools to be strong, but we also want parents to have options [and] to decide among options.”

He told the audience of mostly D.C. parents that the goal of vouchers is to “advance people who have been oppressed. The people who have oppressed them have to step back.”

Virginia Walden-Ford, president of D.C. Parents for School Choice, said, “We have to be sure we’re all out there to support” families that join the program.

“We have to go into communities and tell parents [how to apply for vouchers], armed with a list of schools and the availability of slots in schools, what to do if schools can’t take your children,” Mrs. Walden-Ford said.

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