of Vouchers Go Shopping for Schools
More than 500 families in the District's school voucher
program packed a Monday night school fair staffed by
representatives of 44 D.C. private schools.
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, June 23, 2004
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The doors of the
former YMCA building on 12th Street NW were not supposed to open
until 6:30 p.m. Monday, but Erica Shorter arrived an hour early,
joining a line that soon stretched half a block to T Street.
Once she got inside, she rushed to a small table in the corner
of the light-green gymnasium. Grabbing a pen, she signed up her
two children for the St. Francis de Sales School on Rhode Island
Shorter, 33, could not have afforded the Catholic school's
tuition in the past. But her children were among 1,249
low-income students selected last week to receive the District's
first tax-funded private-school vouchers, and she wanted them to
be first on the school's list.
The public schools in Southeast Washington that her children
have attended have low scores and limited programs, she said,
"and I want them to be able to get all kinds of learning."
Shorter and the families of more than 500 other voucher
recipients jammed into the small building, now called the
Thurgood Marshall Center Trust, Monday evening and yesterday
afternoon to visit tables staffed by representatives of 44
private D.C. schools that have agreed to participate in the
She and the other parents soon learned that arriving early did
not boost their children's chances of getting into any
particular school. The voucher holders still need to submit
formal applications to the schools that interest them, and the
schools will determine which students qualify for admission
after reviewing their records.
But the line to get into the school fair was an indication of
the excitement among the families who will be pioneers in the
school-choice initiative, which Congress approved in January.
Ruth Martin, 68, was there yesterday with three grandchildren
who have won vouchers to switch out of their public schools. She
asked questions and collected information packets at several
tables, saying later that she was most impressed with the
Preparatory School of D.C. in Northwest. "I am looking for a
place where the class sizes are smaller and they give more
attention to each child's studies," she said.
The vouchers are worth up to $7,500 per child. Of the students
who won grants for this fall, 1,049 attend public school or are
about to start kindergarten, and those entering a grade in which
the program had more applicants than slots were selected through
a lottery. The remaining 200 voucher winners already are
enrolled in private school but met the income guidelines for the
federal assistance; they also were picked by lottery.
Sally Sachar, president and chief executive of the nonprofit
Washington Scholarship Fund, which was selected to run the
voucher program, said "we are absolutely thrilled" with the
results of the two-day fair.
But she emphasized that the fair was just a first step in the
process of matching applicants from the public school system
with their new private schools. Applications to the schools are
due July 9. After the schools have determined which students
meet their admissions criteria, another lottery will be used in
cases where a school has more qualified applicants than spaces.
Archdiocese of Washington schools, which account for almost half
of the schools participating in the program, were particularly
active at the fair. A large city map mounted on a stand in the
middle of the gym floor showed the Catholic schools' location,
and their information packets emphasized that all kinds of
students were welcome.
A handout from St. Francis de Sales noted that "70 percent of
our students and 40 percent of our faculty are non-Catholic."
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