This school voucher program is Washington D.C.’s only school choice program. It was enacted and launched in 2004, and it continues to serve students from low-income households. Learn more about the program’s details on this page, including eligibility, funding, regulations, legal history, and more.
America’s only private school choice program created by Congress
1,259 participating students (2015–16)
35 percent of families with children eligible districtwide
41 participating schools (2015–16)
Average voucher value: $8,712 (2012–13)
Value as a percentage of public school per-student spending: 49 percent
The District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program provides vouchers to low-income parents who choose private schools for their children.
Vouchers are worth up to $8,381 for K-8 students and $12,572 for students in grades 9–12. Those amounts rise with the Consumer Price Index. Vouchers first pay for tuition, with any leftover amount available for certain qualified fees that schools may require.
Overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, the program is funded separately from D.C. public and charter schools. It is authorized through 2016, with $20 million in total available funding.
Families must be current D.C. residents. Additionally, families must either receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or earn no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level when they enter the program ($44,863 for a family of four in 2015–16). Students may continue to receive vouchers in later years if their household income does not rise above 300 percent of the poverty level. Students are given priority if they come from public schools in need of improvement, or if they or their siblings already are participating in the program. They may use vouchers only to attend private schools located in D.C.
The District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first and only such program authorized by Congress, can award vouchers to only 2,000 students per year because of a relatively small annual budget. Many families who otherwise qualify for the program are unnecessarily denied the ability to choose schools for their children, as evidenced by the annual lottery and resulting waitlist for the vouchers. On funding, the program’s maximum vouchers are worth about 43 percent of the average $29,427 revenue available to each D.C. public school student; all D.C. students should receive equal funds regardless of the educational option (public, charter, or private) their parents choose. The Opportunity Scholarship Program also places a number of regulatory burdens on schools, including removal of private school autonomy over admissions. Although the program does require participating students to take a nationally norm-referenced test, private schools are not required to administer the tests. If the school doesn’t administer the test, the Secretary of Education (through the Institute of Education Studies) shall administer a nationally norm-referenced test at least one time during the school year for each scholarship student. For the program to improve, funding should be expanded beyond the current $20 million to allow more families to participate. The program could also be converted into a universal education savings account program to ensure that all D.C. students have access to the right education for them, whether private school or a customized curricula. Congress is currently considering a proposal to do that.
House Resolution 2673, 2004 Consolidated Appropriations Act; House Resolution 1105, 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act; House Resolution 471, 2011 Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act
No legal challenges have been filed against the program.