More than 1,600 low-income students have enrolled in District private schools using a federally funded voucher program this year, a 60 percent increase over last year.
This school year was the first that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program allowed new enrollees since Congress stopped the funds in 2009 amid controversy over whether the program improved educational outcomes for the District's poorest students. Students already receiving vouchers continued in the program.
Before Congress cut off funding, the program had grown from 1,027 participants in fall 2004, its first year, to a peak of 1,930 in the 2007-2008 school year.
Congress renewed the scholarship program for $100 million over five years in April -- giving parents just four months to sign up. Yet 745 of the 1,615 participating students, or 46 percent, are new this year.
"It was a very quick time period that we could take new applications, and I think the numbers were really impressive, considering we had a couple months to reach out to families," said Ellen London, president and CEO of the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, which runs the scholarship at the District level.
With a full year to do outreach, London sees even more sizable growth ahead.
More than 92 percent of the voucher recipients would otherwise be assigned to schools in need of improvement, corrective action or restructuring, her organization said.
Instead, students received scholarships of up to $12,000 for high school and up to $8,000 for elementary or middle school. The program received $13.7 million in federal funding this year. Fifty-three District private schools are currently involved in the program.
About 98 percent of participating students are black or Hispanic, and 40 percent live in Wards 7 or 8. The average household income of students was $23,401 in 2010. The federal poverty line for a family of four was $41,347.50 last year.
Last year's debate over reauthorizing the program polarized District officials.
Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said that the scholarship fund doesn't improve test results. Advocates of school choice, however, argued that the program boosted graduation rates and student wellness. Reports are equally conflicted.
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown testified before the House that he supported the voucher program. "I cannot look a working mother in the eye and tell her that she deserves less choice, not more," he said.