- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Students in the District’s most troubled public schools received about one-third of the private-school vouchers awarded in the first year of nation’s first federally funded program, according to an Education Department report released yesterday.

Only 79 applications — 4 percent of the total — came from 15 D.C. schools designated as in need of improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act. All were awarded scholarships of up to $7,500 to pay tuition, fees and transportation expenses for participating nonpublic elementary or secondary schools in the current school year.

An additional 73 public schools were designated as needing improvement after the application deadline, the report noted. Applications were submitted by 456 students from those schools, and a total of 433 students from all schools that were eventually labeled as needing improvement received scholarships, said Ed Greenberger, a spokesman for the Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the program. Those students accounted for more than 30 percent of the scholarships awarded, he said.

By contrast, 518 eligible applicants came from private schools, and 43 percent of those students received vouchers. Of the 1,251 other public-school students who applied, 85 percent were admitted into the program.

“Parents whose students are already [in private school] want public assistance to help their students remain there,” said Roxanne Evans, a spokeswoman for D.C. Public Schools.

“That’s one of the tragedies of vouchers — that private-school students use public money to fund private education,” she added.

But Mr. Greenberger said application data for the coming school year show that the program is moving away from serving private-school students.

Of the 2,286 applications received from public-school students so far for the 2005-06 school year, 52 percent are from students who attend schools that need improvement or who will be entering kindergarten, Mr. Greenberger said. He predicted that students who currently attend public schools would receive virtually all the new scholarships to be awarded in lotteries later this month.

“We expect there will be no room for students who are already in private schools,” Mr. Greenberger said. “The legislation gives priority to public-school kids and the highest priority to kids from ‘needs improvement’ schools.”

Legislators stand by their creation.

“Even with limited time for outreach, the program attracted participation by more than half of the private schools in the District, providing parents and students with dozens of diverse and well-established private options,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and a principal backer.

More than half of the participating schools are Catholic. They are smaller and have lower student-teacher ratios than the city’s public schools, and tuition for most is less than the $7,500 maximum paid by vouchers.

An average of 82 percent of students at the participating schools are minorities, the Department of Education said.

Compared with the general enrollment in public schools, more voucher recipients are black and fewer are Hispanic, the report stated. Most come from homes where the average income is less than $19,000 a year.

Critics contend that vouchers take the best students out of public schools. But more than a quarter of D.C. public schools lost no students under the program. An additional 56 percent lost fewer than 2 percent of their students.

Vouchers had a greater effect in the District’s private schools. Between 5 percent and 20 percent of students in the majority of the participating private schools paid with vouchers.

To be eligible for school vouchers, students entering kindergarten through 12th grade must live in the District, in low-income households. Scholarships can be renewed for up to five years. Schools must agree to requirements regarding nondiscrimination and fiscal accountability.

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