District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program
Please note: This program's frequently asked questions (FAQs) below is for historical information only. FAQs will be updated when a new competition is announced.
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What is the purpose of the DC School Choice Incentive Program?
The purpose of the initiative is (1) to give the parents of DC school children the opportunity to exercise greater choice in the education of their children and (2) to provide an opportunity to test and evaluate a program of expanded educational choice in a low-performing school district. Toward that end, the program will give private school scholarships to DC school children, and an independent entity will conduct a scientific evaluation of the impact of the program both on scholarship recipients and on the DC public school system. The US Department of Education and the Government of the District of Columbia will collaborate in implementing this program, which is part of a broader, three-pronged initiative, contained in the FY 2004 DC Appropriations Act, to strengthen elementary and secondary education in the District.
Student Eligibility and Selection
Which children in DC will be eligible to obtain scholarships under the program?
Elementary and secondary school students (including those who will be entering school for the first time in school year 2004-2005) who are residents of the District of Columbia and are members of families whose income does not exceed 185 percent of the poverty line (currently about $34,000 for a family of four) will be able to apply to receive scholarships for this year. In succeeding years, the eligibility criteria will be the same, except that the family income limit for continuing participants will be 200 percent of the poverty line (currently $36,800 for a family of four).
How many scholarships will be available?
Approximately 2,000 students will be able to receive scholarships.
If more eligible students apply for scholarships than there are scholarships available, how will recipients be selected?
In that circumstance, applicants will be picked through a lottery.
If there is selection of students through a lottery, will any eligible students receive a priority? How will priorities be implemented?
Students who currently attend DC public schools that have been identified, by the school system, as in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring will be given a priority if a lottery is used to select scholarship recipients. (Under the "Title I" program, the DC public school system identifies schools as in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring on the basis of test scores and other criteria. Currently, 15 schools are identified.) In addition, students and families who lack the resources to take advantage of available educational options will receive a priority; for instance, a student whose family faces major health care costs might receive a priority over other, otherwise similar students.
Will students who receive scholarships this year be able to retain them (and remain in their private schools) in future years?
Yes, so long as scholarship recipients continue to meet the family income criteria and maintain good academic standing, they will be able to continue receiving scholarships in future years without having to reapply or go through the lottery process.
May DC children who are currently enrolled in private schools receive scholarships?
The statute does not preclude students who meet the family income criteria, reside in the District of Columbia, and currently attend DC private schools from participating. However, they would not receive the priority for students enrolled in public schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring; nor would they be likely to receive the priority for students who lack the resources to take advantage of available educational options (since they already have the resources to attend a private school).
Participation of Private Schools
Which schools will students who receive scholarships be able to attend?
Any private school that operates lawfully in the District of Columbia and that elects to participate in this initiative will be able to enroll scholarship students.
What requirements will private schools that participate in the program be required to meet?
They will be required to:
Meet the civil rights requirements applicable to the initiative (see question 13 below);
Provide parents of scholarship students with a report, at least once a year, describing the academic progress of the student (and the aggregate performance of other students in the school) and on the safety of the school; and
Comply with requests for data and information required for the conduct of the independent evaluation of the program.
If more scholarship recipients want to attend a particular school than the school can accommodate, how will students be selected to attend that school?
If more students who meet the academic criteria for admission to a school apply than the school can accommodate, students will be selected for admission through a lottery.
Could any students be exempted from a lottery conducted to determine who will be admitted to a private school?
Yes, scholarship recipients who are siblings of students already admitted to, or attending, a participating private school may be admitted to that school without going through the lottery process.
Will enrollment of a scholarship student make a private school a "recipient of Federal financial assistance"?
No, the statute specifies that scholarships are considered assistance to the student and not as assistance to the participating school.
What civil rights requirements will apply to private schools participating in the program?
The statute authorizing the program includes the following civil rights-related provisions:
In general, private schools cannot discriminate against participants who receive or apply for scholarships on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex.
Religiously affiliated schools participating in the program may exercise their rights in employment matters in a manner that is consistent with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including the exemptions in that law. Those schools will not be required to change their teaching mission or governance structure, remove religious art, icons, scriptures, or other symbols, or remove religious references from their names. A participating school may select its board on a religious basis, and may include religious references in its mission statement and governing documents. In addition, those schools will not have to abide by the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex to the extent that doing so would be incompatible with the religious tenets or beliefs of the school.
A student may use a scholarship to attend a single-sex DC private school, or to participate in single-sex classes and activities at participating schools.
The provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 will not apply to participating schools by virtue of their participation.
Do students with disabilities have an equal right to participate in this program?
The entity that administers this program must select students who are eligible to participate through a lottery that does not discriminate on the basis of disability and will help place those students in schools that best meet their needs. The issue of whether a student with a disability must be given an equal opportunity to attend a particular, participating private school is more complicated. No Federal law forbids a participating religious school from discriminating against students with disabilities in admissions, assuming the school does not receive Federal financial assistance under other programs. With respect to non-religious participating schools, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would forbid discrimination against a student with disabilities, and would require that the school provide the student auxiliary aids and services, provided that serving the student would not require fundamental alterations to the nature of the school's program or result in an undue burden. That Act would also require removal of physical barriers to access if readily achievable. These ADA requirements would apply to non-religious private schools, whether or not they participate in this program.
May participating schools hold scholarship recipients to the same rules of conduct and other requirements applicable to the schools' other students?
Yes, the authorizing legislation expressly allows participating private schools to require scholarship students to abide by the same rules of conduct and other requirements applicable to all other students who attend the school.
Who will be responsible for transporting scholarship recipients to private schools?
The authorizing act does not assign specific responsibility for transportation of students. However, the law does allow students to receive scholarships that cover the cost of transportation, as well as tuition and fees, subject to the $7,500 maximum. Our expectation is that the subsidization of students' transportation costs in this manner will allow scholarship recipients to travel to school using the same methods of transportation (school buses, public transit, private cars) used by other children attending the schools.
Administration of the Program
Who will select students to receive scholarships, recruit private schools to participate in the program, award the scholarships, and carry out the other activities necessary for administration of the program?
The US Department of Education, in consultation with the DC Government, will competitively select one or more independent entities to carry out these functions. Each such entity must be an educational entity within the DC Government, a nonprofit organization, or a consortium of nonprofit organizations, and must have a governing board or governing organization a majority of whose members are DC residents.
What will be the specific responsibilities of the entity or entities selected to administer the program?
The entity will be responsible for carrying out such activities as: (1) conducting outreach to eligible students and their parents, to inform them about the program and encourage their participation; (2) running the process of selecting students to receive scholarships, including conducting a lottery; (3) recruiting DC private schools to participate in the program; (4) awarding scholarships and ensuring that they are used for tuition, fees, and transportation consistent with the law; (5) completing an annual report on activities carried out under the program, on the achievement of students who receive scholarships and on parental satisfaction with the program; and (6) coordinating and collaborating with the research organization that will carry out the required evaluation.
What civil rights requirements apply to the entity or entities that will administer the program?
The authorizing law provides that the entity or entities may not discriminate against program participants or applicants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. In addition, as a recipient of Federal financial assistance, the entity or entities will be covered by the nondiscrimination provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (race, color, and national origin), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (disability), Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (sex), and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, in accordance with their own terms.
What will be the criteria for selection of the entity or entities?
The Department, in consultation with the DC Government, will select the entity or entities on the basis of such criteria as: (1) the quality of the proposals they submit for recruiting and selecting students to participate; (2) the quality of their proposals for conducting outreach and providing information to parents of eligible students; (3) the quality of their proposals for identifying and selecting DC private schools to participate in the program; (4) their demonstrated capability to administer funds, track the status and progress of scholarship recipients, and handle other administrative functions under the program; and (5) their ability to provide students and families with the widest range of educational options.
What will be the role of the US Department of Education and the Government of the District of Columbia in administration of the program?
In addition to the Department (in consultation with the DC Government) conducting a competition for an entity or entities to administer the program, the Department and the DC Government will jointly oversee the program to ensure that it is being carried out consistent with statutory requirements. In addition, the Department will contract for an evaluation of the program by an independent organization selected jointly by the Department and the DC Government. (See below.) Secretary of Education Paige and DC Mayor Williams have entered into a memorandum of understanding that describes how the Department and the DC Government will work cooperatively on this initiative.
Will administration of the program involve the Department of Education, the DC Government, or the independent entity in setting new requirements for private schools (for instance, in the area of teacher qualifications)?
No. Private schools participating in the program will maintain their traditional independence in such areas as hiring and establishing minimum qualifications for teachers, selecting curricula, and setting standards for grading and promotion. The Department and the DC Government will fully respect that independence.
Amount of Scholarships and Tuition
How large will the scholarships be? What educational costs will be paid for with them?
As noted above, the maximum scholarship will be $7,500, and scholarships will pay for tuition, fees, and transportation expenses.
Will private schools be allowed to charge more than their usual tuition to scholarship students?
No, the statute explicitly provides that participating private schools may charge scholarship students no more than the usual tuition that they charge to students who do not participate in the program.
Will any students who receive scholarships have to meet costs that are not covered by the scholarship (i.e., will a scholarship always cover the full cost of attending a private school)?
The great majority of private school slots available for participating students will be in schools that charge less than $7,500. However, students electing to use their scholarships to attend schools that charge more than the $7,500 maximum scholarship would have to make up the difference from other sources (which could include private scholarship funds available to those schools or from other sources).
Scholarship students might also have to pay costs associated with extracurricular activities, field trips, and the like, if those costs are not part of the usual and customary fees charged by a school to all students.
What kind of information about participating private schools can parents expect to receive?
The entity or entities administering the program will provide interested parents with information on the schools that have agreed to accept scholarship students, including on their educational philosophy, curriculum and instructional program, teaching staff, admissions criteria, and school environment, and on the academic achievement of the school's students.
How can parents apply to have their children receive scholarships?
The entity or entities selected to administer the program will establish the specific procedures and timelines for the application process. The Department's schedule calls for the selection process for the first round of scholarships to take place, and for students to select and be admitted to schools, by the end of the 2003-2004 school year.
What information will the parents of scholarship students receive about the program?
Each private school participating in the program will provide to the parents of scholarship students, at least annually, information on: (1) the student's academic achievement (including comparisons with other students); and (2) the safety of the school.
Evaluation of the Program
Who will evaluate the DC choice incentive program?
An independent research organization (that is, an organization that is independent of both the US Department of Education and the DC Government) will conduct an evaluation of the DC school choice incentive program.
Who will select the entity that conducts the evaluation?
The Department and the DC Government will jointly select the independent organization, on a competitive basis.
What issues and areas will the evaluation examine?
The evaluation will look at such issues as:
The academic achievement of scholarship students (compared to that of students who remain in DC public schools, including those who apply for scholarships but do not receive them);
The retention, dropout, and college admissions rates of participating students (again in comparison with other DC students);
The success of the program in expanding educational options for parents;
The reasons why parents choose to have their children 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, compared to other schools.
Will the evaluation results be used to compare one DC private school against another?
No. This is not called for under the statute, and will not be part of the evaluation.
What tests will scholarship students have to take? Will other students who attend participating private schools also have to take those tests?
Under the statute, the evaluation will include testing of scholarship students using the same assessments that the DC Public Schools are using at the time the program begins. The evaluation results will be used to assess the academic performance of students over the course of the program. Administration of the tests will be the responsibility of the evaluator. (Participating schools will not be required to administer them.)
Both scholarship recipients and students who apply for scholarships but do not receive them will take these assessments. This design will allow a valid comparison of the academic achievement of scholarship students versus that of DC schoolchildren at the same grade level who remain in the public schools. Other students at participating private schools would not be part of the evaluation and would not have to take those tests.
How soon will the new scholarship program begin?
As noted earlier, the Department's timetable calls for initiation of the program in a manner that enables a first round of students to receive scholarships and select schools this spring, so that they can enter their new schools in the fall of 2004.