WASHINGTON - When the time came for April Walton's daughter, Breanna, to enter elementary school, Ms. Walton didn't know what to do. The prospect of turning her daughter over to a public school was frightening.
"I didn't feel that was a good environment," Ms. Walton, a single mother of two, said. "But I couldn't afford to send her anywhere else."
Ms. Walton found the solution to her problem, one shared by thousands of parents in the District of Columbia, in Washington's Opportunity Scholarship program. The $13 million, federally funded, five-year pilot program - created by an act of Congress in January 2004 - provides a voucher of up to $7,500 for low-income families in the District of Columbia to send their children to private schools. Now in its second year, the voucher program is generating positive reviews, both formal and anecdotal.
Washington's mayor, Anthony Williams, a Democrat who bucked his party to push for the program, said he was pleased with the results so far - including the vouchers' effect on the public school system, one of the worst-performing in the nation.
"I think the good schools have gotten better, and the mediocre schools are getting on track because, I believe, we've had a charter school movement that's been very robust, and because of the vouchers," Mr. Williams told The New York Sun.
Mr. Williams said he didn't know whether the District's experience meant that voucher programs should spread across the country. "But I do believe we ought to be more open about experimenting all over the country," the mayor said, "and I do believe that where you've got low-performing schools in bad situations, you ought to give parents that choice, wherever that happens to be."
As for those receiving vouchers in D.C., Mr. Williams added: "We're finding that the lowest-income parents from some of the lowest-performing schools are taking advantage of this program, and they're excited about it."
Those excited participants include families like the Waltons. Breanna, for example, is now a 6-year-old first-grade student at the private Rock Creek International School, where the average class size is 12 and the student-teacher ratio is 7-to-1. She has as classmates the children of international corporate executives and foreign ambassadors. Breanna's curriculum is the International Baccalaureate program, and she is taught regularly in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Trips abroad - to Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East - are part of the curriculum, and Breanna will participate. The school's facilities are bright, colorful, and clean, on a quiet, tree-lined street in Georgetown.
According to Ms. Walton, it's a far cry from what awaited Breanna at her local public school. The Waltons live in the RFK Stadium-Armory neighborhood in southeast Washington, an economically depressed, crime-ridden area of the District. By sending Breanna across town to Rock Creek International, Ms. Walton said, her daughter doesn't "have to come into a building where there's broken windows, and glass, and litter, and drug paraphernalia laying around.
"I know that when I go to work that day, she's safe," Ms. Walton said. "I don't have to worry about the crime."
Ms. Walton's satisfaction is apparently shared by most of the hundreds of families involved in the Opportunity Scholarship program.
According to the Washington Scholarship Fund, the organization that manages the voucher program, more than 1,700 students are participating for the program's second year, up from just under 1,000 last year. Nine out of 10 participants from the last academic year, they say, have returned for the program's second year. According to the federal Department of Education, around half of the students currently participating in the program previously attended schools classified as "needing improvement" by evaluations under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The voucher program will be evaluated and studied meticulously, as required by the federal legislation that created it. Academic results won't be available until early 2007, a spokesman for the scholarship fund, Edward Greenberger, said.
This year, 59 private schools, or around 53% of the District's 109 nonpublic schools, are educating voucher students. Of those schools, around 51% are part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, 21% are non-Catholic religious schools, and the remaining 28% are independent, nonsectarian private schools.
According to Mr. Greenberger, 66 schools have signed up for the 2006-07 academic year. Demand for the program is exceeding supply: For the 2005-06 academic year, the scholarship fund says it received 1.7 applications for each classroom seat available under the program.
An independent Georgetown University study released last month said parents in a focus group reported that they had become more involved in their children's education and that their children demonstrated improved academic achievement. The students reported unanimously a desire to attend college and a belief that the voucher program would enable them to do so.
Anecdotally, the schools, too, seem pleased with the voucher students. According to administrators at Rock Creek International, which has more than 20 scholarship recipients in its student body of around 200, those attending Rock Creek with the federal vouchers were performing as well as their peers academically and were a welcome presence at the school. Because the yearly tuition at Rock Creek International is more than $19,000, and the vouchers are capped at $7,500 a year, the school is subsidizing each of the Opportunity Scholarship recipients.
"It's important to us philosophically," Rock Creek's director of admissions, Joshua Schmidt, said. As an international school, Mr. Schmidt said, Rock Creek depends on pupils' ability to interact with and adjust to classmates of different backgrounds.
To Ms. Walton, exposing her daughter to children and customs outside her neighborhood was a significant benefit of the voucher program. The District of Columbia's public schools are 95% black, and, Ms. Walton said, "I just didn't want Breanna to just be educated among people of her own color." According to the Department of Education study of the voucher program, 82% of the participants were children belonging to racial minority groups.
Although the voucher program generated an intense backlash from opponents of school choice when it was implemented, the criticism now seems muted. Troy Howard, a spokesman for the president of the D.C. teachers union, George Parker, said: "Overall, he doesn't like the idea of vouchers ... but he hasn't kept up with the numbers" in order to comment specifically on the Opportunity Scholarship program."We don't think there's a story here for vouchers as far as the teachers union is concerned," Mr. Howard said.
While most available measures suggest positive early results for D.C.'s vouchers, the program has run into some obstacles, mostly owing to its popularity. The biggest, according to the president and CEO of the Washington Scholarship Fund, Sally Sachar, is the space crunch in participating high schools.
Because the vouchers are capped at $7,500 with no adjustments for inflation, and because private high-school tuition is often more than $7,500, "It means for every child a high school takes, it's subsidizing the cost of serving that child - and it constrains the supply of high school spaces for our children."
Ms. Sachar said the scholarship fund was working with members of Congress, led by Senator Brownback, a Republican of Kansas, to seek a legislative remedy to the space crunch. A bill increasing the amount of the voucher for secondary-school students, and expanding the program to include D.C.-area schools in Virginia and Maryland, would help alleviate the shortage, Ms. Sachar said.
"This has our full attention," she said. "A lot of people are focused on this - the mayor, the DoE, leaders on the Hill, the business community, the philanthropic community. The solution is going to have to be very far-reaching." Until then, Ms. Sachar said, private donations, particularly from the WSF's vice chairman, C. Boyden Gray, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, were helping to bridge the gap.
According to Ms. Walton, legislation expanding the program would meet with a positive reception in the neighborhoods most served by the vouchers. "I have a lot of friends and co-workers whose children are failing classes" in Washington's public schools, Ms. Walton said. "They're not excelling the way they're supposed to, and I think every child that's a child who lives in the metropolitan area should be well-educated. We're right here in the nation's capital."