- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2019

On the corner of 12th and Monroe streets NE a Nativity scene rests near the base of a stone church, as a mother and her three children walk past a statue of the Virgin Mary draped in blue Christmas lights.

It’s not the typical surrounding for a publicly funded school. But nearly half of the students at St. Anthony Catholic School in Brookland receive federal vouchers through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program — the only voucher initiative funded by Congress.

“They’re our kids,” said Principal Michael Thomasian, whose school’s tuition is roughly $7,000 a year. “Once they arrive and are in, we don’t consider them separate, like, ‘Oh, those kids.’ They’re part of the St. Anthony family.”

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is funded through this year, but its future is uncertain under a Democrat-led House.

Democrats have criticized voucher programs in general for redirecting funds from traditional public schools to privately operated schools. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, in the past has called for the city vouchers to end, but has asked that students currently in the program be allowed to graduate. She did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2017, the majority of the D.C. Council issued a statement against continuing the program, but Mayor Muriel Bowser has been a quiet supporter.

“In the District of Columbia we have a robust, three-sector system of schools that provides families and students access to high-quality options at every level,” a spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said in an email to The Washington Times. “Going forward, we will continue working with Congress to reauthorize the necessary funding to keep these choices available.”

Voucher critics argue that the program props up schools with questionable academic credentials and potentially violates students’ constitutional rights against government-sponsored religious education.

“I think the likelihood is pretty good [for changes in the voucher program] if you’re looking at the politics here,” said Elise Helgesen Aguilar, federal legislative counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The only place where legislation for the D.C. voucher has passed on its own is the House. In the Senate, it [the bill reauthorizing voucher spending] has only been tacked onto past spending bills.”

But voucher supporters do not anticipate dramatic change in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program. They note that the federal Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act created a “three-sector” system authorizing $20 million for vouchers and $20 million for traditional public and charter schools, meaning the program is difficult to isolate for defunding.

“There’s a lot of support in the House and in the Senate and in the White House,” said Rachel Sotsky, executive director of the D.C. nonprofit Serving Our Children, which distributed $15 million from the Department of Education to the more than 1,600 students who won vouchers via a lottery last year.

Patrick J. Wolf, chairman of the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, pointed out that the D.C. voucher program benefits mostly black and Hispanic students who fall below 175 percent of the federal poverty level.

“It’s political suicide [to cut funding],” said Mr. Wolf, a former federal evaluator of the program. “What’s a more likely strategy is we’ll see efforts to cap and regulate.”

In 2009, then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan rescinded grants for students new to the voucher program.

At St. Anthony’s, 41 percent of its 228 students use vouchers. Asked if his 97-year-old school would need to close without the program, Mr. Thomasian demurred.

“That’s a bit of a myth,” the principal said. “Enrollment drives this train, but I feel we’ll be open with or without this program. But can we do as Pope Francis asks and help the poorest of the poor? Our [internal] scholarships can only go so far. So I don’t know.”

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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