WASHINGTON-After the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program became an issue in the presidential campaign, the Obama administration finally agreed to preserve the program that provides education vouchers for low-income parents for at least another year. The $20 million program, which allows students to attend private schools in a city where the public school system is still struggling mightily, is enormously popular among D.C. parents but much less popular with local teacher unions.
Mitt Romney touted the program as a model for the country several times in recent speeches, highlighting President Barack Obama's push to cut scholarships for low-income families.
"Instead of eliminating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program as President Obama has proposed, I will expand it to offer more students a chance to attend a better school," Romney said in a Chamber of Commerce speech at the end of May. "It will be a model for parental choice programs across the nation."
At another campaign stop in Virginia in late May the Republican candidate called the president's repeated attempts to close the tiny program "inexcusable."
Voucher programs, as well as tuition tax credits (which aren't direct scholarships), are expanding across the country: 18 states now offer vouchers or tuition tax credits, and five offer tuition tax deductions, according to The Heritage Foundation.
The D.C. scholarship program has long been on the Democratic hit list. President Bill Clinton vetoed the program when it first passed Congress in 1998. Republicans passed the program again and it finally got off the ground in 2004. While it initially had little endorsement from D.C. officials, support grew among local Democratic politicians over time. The program is structured so that as much money that goes to scholarships also goes to public and charter schools, as a way to deflect criticism that it is sucking resources from public schools.
The Obama administration closed the program to new students in 2009, but House Speaker John Boehner secured a five-year reauthorization of the program as part of last year's spending deal. Applications for the scholarships surged, and now about 1,600 low-income students are receiving aid. (Over the life of the program, it has received about two times as many applications as there were scholarships.) But then Obama zeroed out the program in the budget he released this year. Obama's budget never went anywhere in Congress, but the Department of Education apparently tried to curb the number of students who could enroll.
On Monday Boehner and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., another long-time supporter of the program, announced that they had reached an "agreement" with the Department of Education to continue full funding of the program. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday that the program would increase enrollment from 1,615 students to 1,700 students-at least for this year.