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
1,154 participating students (2016–17)
34 percent of families with children eligible districtwide
47 participating schools (2016–17)
Average voucher value: $9,570 (2016–17)
Value as a percentage of public school per-student spending: 46 percent
The District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program provides vouchers to low-income students. Overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, the program is funded separately from D.C. public and charter schools. There is $20 million in total available funding.
Vouchers are worth up to $8,653 for K–8 students and $12,981 for students in grades 9–12 for 2017–18. 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.
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 ($45,510 for a family of four in 2017–18). 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 previously attended public schools identified as one of the lowest-performing under the District of Columbia’s accountability system 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 about 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 49 percent of the average revenue available to each D.C. district school student; all D.C. students should receive equal funds regardless of the educational option (district, 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 and requiring participating students to take the D.C. Public Schools assessment in grades 3 through 8. If the school doesn’t administer the test, the Secretary of Education (through the Institute of Education Studies) shall administer a District of Columbia Public Schools test at least one time during the school year for each scholarship student in grades 3–8, as well as once while in high school. For the program to improve, lawmakers should expand funding 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 course of education.
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; Public Law 114-113, 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act; House Resolution 244, 2017 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Public Law 115-31.
No legal challenges have been filed against the program.