By Molly Henneberg
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
For the past three years, 8-year-old Nico Thomas has attended and enjoyed private school through the voucher program in Washington.
"I like it a lot, and I get good grades," she told FOX News.
Nico's mother, Latasha Bennett, thought her 4-year-old daughter, Nia, also had qualified for a voucher, until the Bennetts and 199 other families got letters last week saying "no scholarships will be awarded to new students this year."
Bennett said she was disgusted.
"Education is our children's future," she told FOX News. "Without the proper education, there's nothing."
The D.C. program gives about 1,700 low-income children scholarships worth up to $7,500, paid for with federal taxpayer dollars each year to cover costs of attending private schools -- rather than the long-troubled D.C. public schools. The five-year pilot program was set to expire this year until Congress extended the program for only one more school year.
As a result, Education Secretary Arne Duncan decided not to offer vouchers for new students.
"To put them in for a year and then put them out didn't make sense," he said.
The issue of vouchers has exposed a deep fissure between Republicans, who support them, and Democrats, who oppose them.
Republicans insist that parents deserve a choice if their kids are in failing schools, saying vouchers create competition that puts pressure on public schools to do better.
Democrats, teachers' unions and other opponents say it is impossible to expect public schools to do better while precious public dollars are being siphoned away to private schools.
But the voucher program in Washington has been an exception in the debate over vouchers. Because of the sorry state of public schools in the nation's capitol, some Democrats were willing to allow it in 2003 when a Republican-led Congress created the voucher program.
It is the only federal voucher program in the country. Other cities and states have similar programs -- vouchers are available in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida, Utah, Arizona and Georgia -- but they are paid for with local tax dollars.
Supporters of vouchers have said teachers unions are putting pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to kill the voucher program in Washington. But Duncan insists that had nothing to do with it.
"No, that's a non-issue," he said. "The issue for me is I'm really concerned about the 1,700 students. We want to try and make sure they can stay in schools they want to be in."
Meanwhile, voucher program students, such as sophomore Ronald Holassie, wonder if they'll be able to stay in their schools or return to the D.C. public schools.
"It hits me in the hardest year -- senior year. It's going to hit me that I have to go back. All that I worked for in my high school years, I would lose."
Two other students who would lose are Sarah and James Parker. They go to Sidwell Friends, the same private school Sasha and Malia Obama attend. They'll have to go back to public school at the end of next year unless Congress and the D.C. City Council approve extending the voucher program.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.