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D.C. Vouchers: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has become a ghost town since the Obama administration began phasing out the controversial voucher program. It has seen signs of a revival, however.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which reinstates the federal voucher program for D.C. students.

If you were to call the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a monotone recording would answer, "The number you have dialed is unallocated."

The organization has become a ghost town since the Obama administration began phasing out the controversial voucher program, which provides federal funding for low-income D.C. students to attend private schools. The program has seen signs of a revival in the House of Representatives, however.

On March 30, in a 225 to 195 vote, the House passed a bill reinstating the program, known now as the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act. Under the bill, the program would reopen with $20 million annually for five years for new scholarships, with an additional $20 million for D.C. charter schools and traditional public schools.

Despite the program's resurgence, it lacks bipartisan support, as all but nine republicans voted in favor of it and only one Democrat opposed it. Republicans support the idea of school choice, while Democrats feel voucher programs remove much needed funding from public education. Evaluating how successful the program has been also appears to be a partisan exercise.

Republicans often cite a study conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences, "Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final Report," pointing out that graduation rates increased under the program. Democrats look at the same federally mandated report and note that student achievement never increased in reading or math.

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program is also the nation's only federally funded voucher program, which leaves many opponents wondering why House republicans supported a bill in D.C. but not on the national stage or on their own home turf.

"The inescapable conclusion is that the republicans believe they can indulge their personal and ideological preferences with impunity here in the District, a risk they are unwilling to take in their own districts with private school vouchers," said Congresswoman Eleanor Jolmes Norton (D-D.C.) on March 1.

In the immediate future, the SOAR Act may face some opposition in the Senate and by President Obama himself. In the long term, it will most likely be subject to politics and rise and fall with each new administration and headstrong legislature.