A Second Chance for Choice
John Boehner tries to revive the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.


Last month, Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio) introduced H.R. 471, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act. Besides the speaker’s imprimatur, H.R. 471 has another advantage: It has one Democratic co-sponsor in the House, Rep. Dan Lipinski (Ill.), and two in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.). 

The bill resuscitates the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a five-year pilot program that Congress created in 2004. In its original incarnation, the program offered vouchers worth up to $7,500 to low-income students in the district so they could attend private schools. Because the DC OSP garnered limited funding, it served only 3,300 students. But demand was high: Each scholarship attracted four applicants, necessitating a lottery.

And satisfaction was real: Parents whose children won vouchers were more likely to rate their schools favorably than those whose children didn’t receive them, according to the Department of Education’s final evaluation. Participants also were more likely to graduate: 91 percent of them completed high school, compared with 70 percent of applicants who didn’t win scholarships.

Nonetheless, opposition was fierce. In 2009, Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) slipped language into an omnibus spending bill to let the program expire. Current enrollees would receive vouchers until graduation, but no additional pupils could apply. Durbin shivered at the thought of unregulated schools. Students were attending “schools where somebody’s mom or somebody’s wife declared themselves [principals] and teachers and went in to teach without college degrees and received federal subsidies to do it,” he told the Washington Times.

Now, however, Boehner plans to revive the program by addressing these criticisms. H.R. 471 obliges all participating schools to hold certificates of occupancy from the district, make accreditation information available for parents, maintain adequate finances, and require teachers of core subjects to hold bachelor’s degrees or their equivalent. It also increases scholarships to $8,000 for elementary-school students and $12,000 for high schoolers.

Boehner’s compromises don’t fundamentally change the bill, Lindsay Burke, an education analyst for the Heritage Foundation, tells NRO. Most schools already have certificates of occupancy, and the stipulation that a teacher hold a bachelor’s or its equivalent gives foreign instructors plenty of flexibility.

A spokesman for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says the bill is “very important” to the GOP. In fact, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census, and the National Archives, says he expects to hold hearings on it by the end of this month. And, as a token of the speaker’s approval, it is “very likely” the bill will be the only regular piece of legislation to bear Boehner’s sponsorship this session, a spokesman tells NRO. 

That said, the most important vote of confidence in the bill may be its three Democratic co-sponsors. Lipinski, for instance, “has been very involved in Catholic schools’ week and really understands why having this option for low-income families is hugely important,” says one education-reform expert. Although the expert sees little chance for further Democratic support, he believes “there is a sufficient margin [in the House] to move it through as is.”

In the Senate, however, he is less sanguine. “To be honest, I do not see a way we can get to 60,” he says. “So the way [forward] will be to attach it to another bill and put it through the appropriations process.”