Education Options in the States: State Programs That Provide Financial Assistance for Attendance at Private Elementary or Secondary Schools
Revised February 2009
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District of Columbia

26. District of Columbia—DC Opportunity Scholarship Program14

Program type: Scholarships for students from low-income families

Description: The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program provides scholarships to students for attendance at private schools in the District of Columbia. This program, unlike the others in this report, is not a state-funded program, but a federally funded program. To be eligible, students must be from families who reside in the District and whose household income does not exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Scholarship students may receive continuation of their scholarships if their household income does not exceed 300 percent of the poverty level. If the number of new scholarships in any year is less than the number of eligible applicants, selection of recipients follows a lottery method. Priority is given to students attending schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring under the Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

With respect to scholarship recipients, participating private schools may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or religion. Certain exemptions from nondiscrimination requirements are given to participating schools with a religious affiliation.

The Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF), a local nonprofit scholarship organization, administers the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Families apply to WSF directly for scholarships, indicating their preference of participating schools.

As mandated by law, the program is evaluated annually by an independent research organization. Evaluations address the academic achievement and the retention, dropout, and college admissions rates of scholarship recipients, in comparison both to students who remain in D.C. public schools and to students who applied for but did not receive scholarships. Evaluations also examine the following: the success of the program in expanding education options for parents; the reasons why parents choose to have their students participate in the program; the impact of the program on students and public schools in the District; and the safety of the schools attended by scholarship students, in comparison to other D.C. schools.

Amount of assistance: The annual scholarship amount is $7,500 or the participating private school's tuition, fees, and any transportation costs, whichever is less.

Number of participants: In the 2007-08 school year, 1,933 students received scholarships to attend 55 participating private schools.

Authorizing statute: D.C. Code §§38-1851.01-38-1851.11

Legislative history: On Jan. 23, 2004, President Bush signed the program into law via the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act of 2003, which was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004. In 2006, legislation was signed into law that raised the household income eligibility renewal limit from 200 to 300 percent of the federal poverty level for students who received their first scholarship in 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years. The program was first implemented in the 2004-05 year and is the first of its kind at the federal level.

Judicial history: There have been no lawsuits challenging the legality or constitutionality of this program.

For more information, see:

14 This program, also known as the District of Columbia School Choice Incentive Program, is authorized and funded by the federal government.

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Last Modified: 04/30/2009