Shirley-Ann Tomdio, a junior at George Washington University studying to be an orthopedic surgeon, ticked off a list of accomplishments that would make any parent proud.
The daughter of Cameroonian immigrants, Ms. Tomdio earned honors before graduating from Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, was an editor of her school’s literary magazine, won awards on the track team and serves as a leader of a women’s empowerment group.
Speaking about her accomplishments before a panel of federal lawmakers Thursday in the auditorium of Archbishop Carroll High School, Ms. Tomdio credited her successes to her parents’ perseverance, as well as a school voucher program that made it possible for her to attend to the private high school.
“The scholarship has allowed me to build a strong foundation for myself,” she said. “As the oldest, I have to set an example for my siblings and most importantly, myself.”
Congress is gearing up to reauthorize funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that aided Ms. Tomdio — a school voucher program that provides disadvantaged families with money to subsidize their children’s enrollment at private schools in the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget includes cuts to the program.
A GOP-controlled Congress established the federal voucher program in 2004, which has awarded stipends of up to $12,572 per student to send more than 6,000 D.C. children to private schools.
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But since its establishment, the program has been a point of political contention, with critics questioning its impact on student achievement and calling on the government to focus resources on public schools.
Program supporters say it gives families a choice outside a troubled public school system.
“Despite spending more per student than any jurisdiction in the country, D.C. Public Schools continue to struggle when it comes to educating students,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, who oversaw Thursday’s hearing.
But local Democrats note that city schools have made drastic improvements in the decade since the voucher program was authorized, and say that if Congress wants to support school choice, it should dedicate the money to the city’s well-established public charter school program instead.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, raised concern Thursday about “fly-by-night” private operations that accept students as part of the program, noting that not all of them are as well-regarded as Archbishop Carroll, where more than half of 384 students receive vouchers.
“There is no quality control on these schools,” she said.
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Schools involved in the D.C. program are vetted prior to participation and must meet testing standards, said Kara Kerwin, director of the Center for Education Reform.
“Results out of the D.C. [program] do give other places a hope this can work,” said Ms. Kerwin, noting that her organization ranks the city’s voucher laws as fourth best in the country.
But the biggest indicator of whether the schools are doing a good job is whether parents kept their children enrolled, she said.
Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget would cut funding for D.C. school programs from $45 million allocated this year to $43.2 million and would require $3.2 million of the allotment to be used for an evaluation of the voucher program. The funding is divided into three separate allotments that go toward the voucher program as well as D.C. Public Schools and D.C. Public Charter Schools. Each of the three received $15 million in the current budget.
Ms. Norton said she would like the voucher program to be phased out gradually, allowing the 1,442 students currently receiving vouchers to graduate without enrolling new students.
As lawmakers quibbled over funding, experts were divided on whether the voucher program delivers tangible results.
Megan Gallagher, a research associate with the Urban Institute, testified Thursday that there is no clear evidence that the voucher program is the best strategy to improve student achievement.
“The evidence is limited on the benefits of [the program] on student achievement,” said Ms. Gallagher, pointing to a 2010 Department of Education study of the program.
The study noted that “after at least four years students who were offered (or used) scholarships had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to those who were not offered scholarships.”
However, the same study also concluded that students enrolled in private schools through the voucher program were far more likely to graduate from high school.
In 2014, 89 percent of the students enrolled in the voucher program graduated as opposed to the 58 percent graduation rate for students enrolled in D.C. Public Schools.
Patrick Wolf, one of the authors of the study, testified Thursday that in addition to higher graduation rates, the study also found higher satisfaction ratings from parents of enrolled students.
“Parents have been empowered by the [program] and report that their children are in better and safer schools,” Mr. Wolf said.
Despite the mixed statistical results, Mr. Chaffetz said he intends hold a markup of the bill reauthorizing funding for the voucher program in the coming months.
“I think the principle of choice in school for parents is a very important one. In D.C., it’s demonstrating results and it’s helping people,” he said.