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
1,724 participating students (Fall 2019)
33 percent of families with children eligible districtwide
41 participating schools (Fall 2019)
Average voucher value: $9,531 (2018–19)
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 $9,022 for K–8 students and $13,534 for students in grades 9–12 for 2019–20. 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. Congress currently allocates $17.5 million for the voucher program, including administrative fees, although there are still some carryover funds left over from previous years of appropriations.
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 (FPL) when they enter the program ($47,638 for a family of four in 2019–20). Students may continue to receive vouchers in later years if their household income does not rise above 300 percent of the FPL ($77,250 for a family of four in 2019–20). 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 fewer than 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 half 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 $17.5 million appropriation to allow more families to participate. In addition, Congress should formula fund the D.C. OSP—moving away from a volatile annual appropriations process—in order to put program funding on stable footing year after year. 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.
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