- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The District will give 1,000 students in substandard schools $7,500 vouchers to attend private schools, half the number Congress anticipated when approving the nation’s first federally funded voucher program last year.

It will award tuition vouchers to 200 children already in private schools, even though funds are available for all 469 applicants.

The Washington Scholarship Fund, which was chosen 11 weeks ago to run the $14 million pilot program, yesterday said it had negotiated 1,264 slots at 50 private schools, 264 of which will not be filled because eligible students do not match the available grade levels.

Sally J. Sacher, the fund’s president and chief executive officer, said “the very tight timeline of this launch … will mark an impressive start to the two-year ramp-up of the pioneering scholarship program in the District.”

A lottery will be held to choose the winners of the 1,200 vouchers, with announcements going out by the end of the week, Mrs. Sacher said.

Congress had planned for 2,000 vouchers worth up to $7,500 each.

As for the financially eligible private school candidates, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the U.S. Education Department capped at 18 percent the number of private school participants to match the proportion of private school students in the city.

In future years, the emphasis will continue to be “to get as many scholarship spots as we could and recruit as many applicants,” Mrs. Sacher said.

A total of 1,252 public school applicants and 469 children of D.C. families in private schools met low-income eligibility criteria.

The program limits participation to families with yearly income no higher than 185 percent of the poverty level, or $34,873 for a family of four.

One leading proponent of the voucher experiment, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the low number of total applicants poses “real problems” as the program unfolds, despite the limited private school spaces.

“It looks like there’s no demand for it,” the leader said.

The scholarship fund, which has raised tens of millions of dollars in private donations for private school scholarships since 1993, had 10,500 applicants in one year alone and should have been able to recruit more voucher applicants, the leader said. “They didn’t want to sign up lots of people. They couldn’t sign up enough schools, so they didn’t have enough slots.”

The low number of applicants will not allow the program to evaluate student learning the first year as required by the statute, some leaders said.

“The problem now is you have to have enough disappointed applicants to do a double-blind study,” one leader said. The remark referred to the requirement to have a demographically identical control group of students still in the public schools whose learning achievement would be scientifically measured alongside that of voucher recipients who move to private schools.

“There are not enough [rejected applicants] for the lower grades, so they can’t really do a study this year,” the leader said. “It puts off the evaluation for a year, so we have a year of learning to break in.”

Mrs. Sacher said the program did not generate enough applicants for spaces in kindergarten to fifth grade.

“There are not many people who could organize each other fast enough. With the short amount of time they’ve had, they’ve done a fantastic job,” said Caleem Kaire, head of Fight for Children, an advocacy group.

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