It was just made official that beginning this school year the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the $15 million plan that provides private school vouchers to low income children in the nation’s capital, will be transitioned from being administered by the D.C. Youth and Investment Trust Corporation to a new non-profit entitled Serving Our Children. Here’s the background.
From its inception as a federal program in 2003 under President George W. Bush, the OSP was run by the Washington Scholarship Fund, the organization created by Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the same individual who twenty five years ago founded Fight for Children. From the time they came into office President Obama and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been fierce opponents of the scholarships, seeking to end Congressional funding and limit the number of participants. Mr. Robert gallantly and bravely opposed these efforts, even during his brave battle to beat the brain cancer that would eventually take his life. But in 2009 the obstacles set up to stop those living in poverty from receiving a free private school education became too much, and the WSF decided to end its association with the OSP.
Since 2010 the program has been administered by the Trust. While recognizing that there are people at this organization who have worked hard to support the program, voucher advocates have been critical of the management of the OSP by this group, pointing out that its efforts to market the plan to eligible families should have been significantly stronger, and highlighting that much of the money that could have spent on scholarships has not been distributed. For example, it is estimated that approximately $42 million in rollover funds is currently sitting unused.
This year the agreement under which the OSP was directed was up for renewal and the Trust informed the Department of Education that it was no longer interested in playing this role. A Request for Proposal was issued and Serving Our Children responded, along with another entity entitled DC School Reform Now, whose executive director David Pickens worked under Mr. Duncan when he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
Serving Our Children is excited to have been awarded the bid to run the OSP, as the board of directors is comprised of several prominent members who have years of direct experience with school choice. Among these include past Mayor of the District of Columbia Anthony Williams, past D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous, Friendship PCS founder and chairman Donald Hense, and Sheila Jackson, a community activist and OSP parent. SOC’s executive director is Rachel Sotsky, who as Senator Joseph Lieberman’s deputy legislative director was one of the original drafters along with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner of the SOAR Act which re-authorized the OSP in 2011. The bill is part of a three-sector approach that provides money for private school vouchers as well as D.C. charters and the traditional school system.
Many important goals have been established by Serving Our Children for the OSP including building a stronger relationship with OSP families and with the Department of Education, establishing a more effective application timeline that will ensure wider participation in the plan, growing the number of participating schools, and perhaps most importantly, bringing the Opportunity Scholarship Program into the 21st century through a grant that will allow a major technology upgrade to the OSP database and application processing system.
It is truly a new day for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and for families living in poverty in the District of Columbia seeking a quality education for their children.