- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

D.C. government officials said yesterday that plans to pay private-school tuition for low-income public-school students in the District will be ready by this fall, although the school voucher program will not be fully implemented until September 2005.

“As excited as we are over passage of the bill, we are admittedly behind the eight ball,” said Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, reacting to statements Wednesday by Education Secretary Rod Paige that a congressionally approved voucher program would be in place by fall.

Mr. Paige told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that the school voucher program in the District, which was approved by the Senate on Jan. 22, will start in the fall and be available nationwide in a few years.

Mr. Bullock said officials would be hard-pressed to get the $14 million program fully implemented so soon.

“We have a serious challenge to get this program up and running for the fall of 2004, the reason being that private and parochial schools are making their admissions decisions in January and February,” Mr. Bullock said.

“That makes the job that much more arduous because we’re essentially going to be fishing for a limited number of slots. This is going to be an ongoing process to build this program, but we should be up to full enrollment by the fall of 2005,” he said.

The federally funded, five-year voucher program will pay the tuition for 1,700 poor students from the D.C. Public Schools system whose parents would rather have them attend private schools. The plan provides vouchers for as much as $7,500 per student.

Mr. Bullock said a third-party contractor will be selected to administer the program. Mr. Paige said he expects to open competition in the next several weeks to choose an organization to administer the program and will meet with Mr. Williams to outline the selection process.

“We’ll be working with Secretary Paige to put a request for proposals together so we can get that out on the street and get started,” Mr. Bullock said.

Under the legislation, the program administrator will conduct a lottery to select students for the vouchers if more than 2,000 of the District’s 65,000 students apply.

Mr. Paige said in his speech Wednesday that he is working on a formal agreement with Mr. Williams for joint operation of the voucher program between the District and federal government.

Opponents say they’re watching the process closely as they consider filing lawsuits against the plan.

“We are looking at the legal possibilities, but no decision has been made and one can’t be made until a few more details come out,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“There are all kind of legal issues, including whether an organization that accepts voucher funds will need to abide by all of the D.C. regulations and federal laws,” Mr. Barry said. “Legal challenges are certainly possible.”

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and nonvoting member of Congress who has opposed vouchers, said yesterday that she does not think the program will work.

“The administration will shortly discover that the D.C. bill has been a launching pad to nowhere,” she said in a prepared statement reacting to Mr. Paige’s comments Wednesday.

Even the strongest advocates for vouchers in the District say challenges remain, including informing parents about who is eligible for the program.

Under the plan, children from households whose incomes are 185 percent of the poverty level or less would be eligible. Priority would be given to students who attend schools that are considered failing by the standards established in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Virginia Walden Ford, executive director for D.C. Parents for School Choice Inc., said her organization plans to hold informational sessions with groups of parents throughout the city in the next several months to pass along details about how the voucher program works.

“I don’t think there is anything in the legislation that says the school district is responsible for informing parents about what their options are,” Mrs. Ford said.

“We’re going to be taking that responsibility for right now, and I’m sure the mayor’s office will also spread the word,” she said. “But we’re going to face a couple of challenges. One is making sure that parents eligible for the program get information in a timely manner.”

Miss Ford said her organization also recently began contacting private schools in the District to find out when they make admissions decisions so students who receive vouchers would be able to enroll by the fall.

“Most schools are doing admissions by the end of February or mid-March, and that’s not a heck of a lot of time to get kids placed,” she said.

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