Decision to Bar Students from Opportunity Scholarship Program is of Deep Concern

April 13, 2009

The decision by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to prohibit eligible low-income DC children from participating in a congressionally-approved federal scholarship program next fall is deeply concerning, said the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program provides low-income children with up to $7,500 to attend a non-public school, and has been funded by Congress through the 2009-10 school year.

In a letter to the Washington Scholarship Fund, the organization that administers the scholarship program, Secretary Duncan barred new students from entering the popular program. His directive came just days after a study released by the Department of Education reported statistically-significant academic progress by students currently in the program as well as high parent satisfaction.

“Congress authorized $14 million for school year 2009-10 to assist low-income families in the District of Columbia who would like to send their children to a non-public school. Secretary Duncan’s decision to ban new students from entering the program means federal money designated by Congress to help poor families will go unused. It is unfortunate and sad that poor families, who received eligibility letters, would now be denied access to funds appropriated by Congress for them,” said Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, Ph.D., superintendent of Catholic schools.

Students currently in the program will be able to continue receiving scholarships through next year (2009-10), but their educational future is uncertain after that. If Congress does not authorize new funding for future years, the approximately 1,700 children who are receiving Opportunity Scholarships could be forced to leave their schools and return to DC public schools. For 86 percent of the children, whose average family income is just $24,000, that would be a school that is underperforming according to No Child Left Behind.

Of the 1,700 children in the program now, 879 attend a Catholic elementary or high school. The Archdiocese of Washington is committed to doing all that it can to urge reauthorization of the Opportunity Scholarship Program because the program has been so successful, as the recent U.S. Department of Education study showed. Already over the past month, the archdiocese has reached out to Secretary Duncan; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the DC Public Schools; and federal and local officials about the importance of continuing this program. Those efforts will continue.

Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
[email protected]