Low-income students denied scholarships, despite D.C. law giving them preference


By Moriah Costa | Watchdog.org

Some Washington, D.C., children are denied participation in the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives students from low-income families scholarships to attend private schools, despite a law that gives students with siblings in the program preference.

The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, which reauthorized the program in 2011, says students with a sibling already in the program are given priority, regardless of whether they were chosen for a control study group.

But for some families, that preference is withheld.

Tiffany Jones, a fifth-grader at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, was denied from the program while her sister, Sabriah, a seventh-grader at the academy, has received the scholarship for two years. The scholarship pays for Sabriah’s tuition, books, uniform and saxophone lessons.

Their father, Gary Jones, a site leader at finance company Duff & Phelps, said he was told Tiffany would have to wait at least four years for test results from a study group before she was eligible.

Washington, D.C. public schools graduate 58 percent of their students; 93 percent of students in the scholarship program graduate high school. Still, the city is preventing some eligible students from joining the scholarship program. Pictured here are Sabriah and Tiffany Jones on their first day of school.

“With this program, it’s a good program, don’t get me wrong, because it allowed us to put our children in better schools,” Jones said. “But to me it’s penalizing parents who have multiple students in the school.”

Jones took a second job as a part-time cashier at the downtown D.C. Marshalls to pay the $4,090 for Tiffany’s tuition and her clarinet lessons at the academy. But despite receiving a $1,000 scholarship from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and moving his family to a smaller, two-bedroom apartment, Jones is behind on his payments to the school.

“Even with two jobs, my wife is still not working, so I have to take care of the bills and everything else,” he said.

Because he works evenings three to four times a week, Jones isn’t able to spend as much time with his children or help them with their homework.

“I don’t get that time like I used to because a lot of nights when I come in they’re asleep, and then I see them in the morning when we head out for school and work,” he said.

The scholarship program was established in 2004 to provide opportunities for students from low-income families to attend a participating private school. The fund provides scholarships of up to $12,572 for high school and $8,381 for elementary and middle school. About 1,500 students were enrolled in 46 schools in 2013.

The program has a 93 percent graduation rate, compared to 58 percent of D.C. public school students that graduated on time in 2012.

The SOAR Act established control groups of students to track the progress of the program, but those study groups are no longer necessary, argued Kevin P. Chavous, executive counsel to the American Federation for Children and former member of the D.C. City Council.

“I think that the accountability and the evidence that the program works is clear,” he said. “Unfortunately, because of the politics of education, kids’ priorities are placed in the backseat, and we see that not just in D.C. but all over the country.”

The Scholarship Opportunity Program office didn’t return a call for comment.