D.C.'s Federal Scholarship Program Offers Lessons for Ohio

Susan Zanner

The new Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Program faces challenging days ahead—educating parents and students who would receive the vouchers is one of the most obvious problems. As the new executive director of School Choice Ohio, I attended a recent conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Alliance for School Choice and the Friedman Foundation. I learned from other school choice program directors across the country that, while challenging, the problems of implementation are not insurmountable. I think it important to consider some of these programs as we prepare to enroll our first voucher students in Ohio. 

Washington, D.C., home to the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF)—a program that allows students to use public money to leave failing schools—is a good case study. I visited the offices of WSF president Sally Sachar and her staff, recently, where they shared their early successes, along with the hurdles of marketing, implementing and participating in the research study of D.C.’s federally-funded voucher program. They also took me to see first-hand how the scholarship program worked for children.

Accompanied by WSF Outreach Coordinator Alicia Robinson, I visited Rock Creek International School, which enrolled 33 WSF recipients. As an International Baccalaureate (IB) elementary and secondary program, the school is committed to diversity, but even that caused difficulties.

The socioeconomic gaps in their student population, for example, meant that even simple things, like celebrating birthdays, were no simple matter. After all, some children arrived at school via limos while others had to negotiate new bus routes and long commutes. How would children coming from the poorest neighborhoods access after-school programs in chess and sports, and traditionally parent-supported summer enrichment programs? Such are the funding disparities that WSF and the participating schools must now address.

But the social issues may be the least of the problems. In terms of academic quality, how does a high-performing school, one enrolling the children of diplomats, maintain high standards with an influx of children performing well below grade level? At Rock Creek International School, volunteer programs emerged, along with innovative community partnerships, to help close the achievement gap.

Managing parental expectations also proved difficult. Many parents came to Rock Creek International School believing their publicly-educated children were “honor students” only to be informed that those children would have to go back a grade to make up material they hadn’t mastered.

According to Josh Schmidt, Director of Admission and Advancement, more time to prepare their school constituencies from board members to faculty to parents to students would have benefited all. Finding cultural connections and celebrating those takes precious time but makes all the difference. Allowing board members to wrestle with the financial and policy implications of committing long-term resources to WSF students requires careful planning. Teachers need some prodding and enhanced training to adequately address learning and cultural differences. The Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Program allows little time for such planning and adjustment, so private schools in our state can benefit from the lessons learned in D.C. 

Schmidt said that despite the problems, “The overwhelming majority of these children have adjusted beautifully to their new school. We don’t make distinctions between voucher students and our regular enrollees, and the kids don’t know the difference. We know we have saved some of these children from early drug use and pregnancy, from a lifetime of limiting expectations, even from violent death.”

Head of School Carole Al-Kahouaji went on to note that in two years’ time, children who entered Rock Creek International School with significant learning deficiencies are now performing at or above grade level. And this in spite of the school’s demanding academics, such as requiring all students to learn two of three languages in addition to English (Spanish, French, or Arabic).

The entire culture for education has changed for many inner-city families. That’s what we hope for in Ohio.

Between now and June 9, when the Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Program’s first enrollment period ends, School Choice Ohio and its partner organizations, Cincinnati’s Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF), Dayton’s Parents Advancing Choice in Education (PACE) and the Dayton and Columbus Chapters of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) will be hosting school fairs in five cities, underwriting parent education events, employing direct mail and phone campaigns, yard signs, local media, and, most important, word of mouth to encourage families to apply for a scholarship for 2006-2007. Our statewide efforts are designed to help families and private schools make lasting, life-changing educational partnerships.

Susan Zanner is the executive director School Choice Ohio. Link into their website here for info about how to apply for a scholarship.

 

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