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Parents And City Leaders Debate D.C. Voucher Program

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Like many parents, Patricia William says she just wants what's best for her children. And several years ago, she says the D.C. public school system wasn't working for her son, Fransoir.

"Fransoir needed more quality time to be able to understand what he needed to learn," says William.

She says the teachers weren't the problem. But, with such large classes, they simply didn't have the ability to give him the attention and support he craved.

So Fransoir, who was in the first grade, became depressed and started disappearing during classes.

"He was in the bathroom hurting himself," says William.

So when she saw an ad for vouchers that could be used for private and parochial schools, William jumped at the chance. In fourth grade, Fransoir began attending Sacred Heart School, a Catholic school a few blocks away.

"In a matter of months, Fransoir changed," says William. "He wrote a postcard... he said 'Mom, thank you for sending me to Sacred Heart. I love my school.' I was happy that I made that choice to get him out of public schools."

In 2004, Congress authorized the D.C. Scholarship Opportunity program. Since then, it has distributed up to $7,500 each to thousands of students. At its height, demand outstrip supply and scholarships were given out by lottery. But the program has its critics.

Washington Teachers Union President Nathan Saunders says vouchers undermine the public school system, and he questions whether the program is even effective.

"It's unfortunate that some think providing scholarships to a few is going to improve the quality of education, but it's not," says Saunders. "What we know from experience is that opportunity scholarships and vouchers don't improve student achievement."

Actually, results are mixed. A 2010 survey by the U.S. Department of Education found vouchers increased students' chances of graduating from high school by 12 percent. But there was no conclusive evidence the program boosted achievement in math and reading.

In 2009, Congress decided to stop funding new scholarships, and the program is scheduled to close once the current recipients graduate. That is, unless Congress passes legislation reauthorizing the program.

To that end, a new bill proposed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn) takes a three-sector approach, extending funding for vouchers, while providing additional funds for public schools and charter schools. Long-time advocate and former D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous is hopeful.

"You know, political winds have changed, and with the new leadership in the house, and the expanded Republican presence in the Senate, we know there's a chance this scholarship program could be reauthorized," he says.

But D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is against extending the program. The District already offers plenty of choice through charter schools, he says in a statement. And he calls the debate over the opportunity scholarship program a home-rule issue.

For his part, union president Saunders says he's prepared to fight against the legislation.

"What our members desire to be done as to support the American Federation of Teachers, support our mayor, Vincent Gray, who also is against the legislation," says Saunders. "And we're going to stand in alignment with them, so that we can refocus the attention on all of the children, and not a few children.

Still, William hopes legislators will think about children like Fransoir when they make their decision.

"He feels likes he can do anything, and I think that's something that no money can buy," she says.

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