This time, the U.S. Capitol came to students on a field trip, as St. Thomas More Catholic Academy – located in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood about five miles from that national landmark – hosted a Feb. 26 congressional hearing to mark the 15th anniversary of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Since its inception in 2004, the only federally funded school voucher program has awarded 10,701 scholarships to kindergarten through 12th grade students from low-income families, giving them the opportunity to attend the school of their choice.

The gathering not only provided St. Thomas More students with a novel afterschool activity that unfolded in their cafeteria, but it also offered a forum where two U.S. senators, a scholarship recipient, a school administrator and parents gave heartfelt testimonials on the program's impact in changing the lives of students and their families.

“When parents have a choice, their kids have a chance,” said Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was the first witness to testify at the hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Witnesses sat at tables set up on a stage in the school and parish’s Cedar Room, before an audience that included students and parents whose families have received the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, along with officials from several schools and other guests.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) testified on behalf of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program at the hearing, saying that his own experience of growing up in poverty has inspired him to champion educational opportunities for children in low-income families. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

The hearing on “The Opportunity to SOAR: 15 Years of School Choice in D.C.” was led by the committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Those two senators, along with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, in January introduced legislation to reauthorize the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act for the next five years, with companion legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican from North Carolina.

Sen. Scott said supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships was not a Democratic or Republican issue. “This is truly an American issue,” he said. “My hope is we can move this bipartisan legislation to the finish line,” which he said would enable students to benefit from the scholarships for years to come.

The scholarship program was launched 15 years ago with bipartisan support from D.C. and congressional leaders, and features a three-sector approach providing equal additional federal funding to support public, charter and non-public educational choices for children in the city. The legislation has also required strict accountability measures for nonpublic schools attended by the scholarship recipients.

When the new legislation was introduced, Sen. Johnson noted, “The Opportunity Scholarship Program has helped students from low-income households attain a graduation rate 21 percentage points higher than comparable students. The fact that twice as many children apply for the program as can be accommodated shows how strong demand is from parents seeking such positive results for their children.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), the chairman of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, led the hearing and was among a bipartisan group of senators who in January introduced legislation to reauthorize the SOAR Act that funds the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

According to a fact sheet provided by Serving Our Children, which administers the scholarship program, 3,294 students applied for the Opportunity Scholarships for the 2018-19 school year, and the scholarships were awarded to 1,645 students. The average annual income for families receiving the scholarships was $23,285, and 43 percent of the families received nutritional or other government assistance. Nearly three-quarters of this year’s scholarship recipients are African-American, and more than 17 percent are Hispanic.

Serving Our Children noted that for the 2017-18 school year, nearly 90 percent of OSP graduates planned to attend college, and another 5 percent were entering the military or a technical school. That year, 94 percent of parents of OSP students expressed satisfaction with the program. Several studies over the years have shown OSP students have higher reading scores than their peers, which is a key indicator for educational achievement. 

Advocates have contended that without the scholarship program, nearly all OSP students would be zoned for a public school designated to be in need of improvement.

Rosio Gonzalez, the president of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Consortium of Catholic Academies – a network of four Catholic schools in the city including St. Thomas More – welcomed the participants and guests to the hearing, saying, “The reauthorization of the SOAR Act provides our families with the ability to achieve their dreams and become successful in high school and beyond.”

In his testimony, Sen. Scott said that as someone who was raised in poverty in a single-parent household and attended four different schools by the time he was in the fourth grade, now as a U.S. senator he believes passionately in fighting for students whose educational opportunities are limited.

“You deserve the chance to prove your mettle,” he said to the students attending the hearing.

Noting the program’s success, Sen. Scott said students are being equipped to be leaders and meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. “I’m excited about the lives you’ll lead,” he said, adding that he hopes such programs can expand to every zip code.

That point was echoed before the hearing by Sen. Johnson, who said in an interview, “We do want to make sure that every American has the opportunity to choose an education that works for them. I’d like to see every child have this opportunity.”

According to the American Federation for Children, 25 states plus the District of Columbia now have private school choice programs, which include vouchers, scholarship tax credits, educational savings accounts and special needs scholarships.

Sen. Scott also noted cost savings connected to the program. According to Serving Our Children, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships provide up to $8,857 for kindergarten through eighth grade students and $13,287 for high school students. The average D.C. public school cost per pupil is $19,117, excluding capital costs.

Both senators noted the importance of parents and students advocating for the program by sharing their stories with local and national legislators.

During a question and answer session with Sen. Scott, a mother noted proudly how her son, an OSP student, will be graduating from Gonzaga College High School in the nation’s capital this spring. “You are living the dream,” the senator replied.

Also testifying was K. Marguerite Conley, formerly the executive director of the Consortium of Catholic Academies and principal of Annunciation Catholic School in Washington, who said, “Every parent and guardian wants his or her child to have a bright and successful future – often one better than he or she had. For many parents and guardians in DC this means higher quality educational opportunities outside of their neighborhood schools that allow for exposure to values, cultural experiences, and activities enriching the overall education of their children.”

Noting the program’s popularity since it began – with 10,701 scholarships awarded to families from the 24,351 applications received – she added, “The reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program empowers parents to exercise their right to choose the best school for their child no matter their income and allows children to have a brighter future.”

Panelists at the hearing included, from left, K. Marguerite Conley, formerly the executive director of the Archdiocese of Washington's Consortium of Catholic Academies; Yisehak Abraham, a former D.C. Opportunity Scholarship recipient who graduated from Columbia University and now works for the American Enterprise Institute; and Gerald Smith Jr., the principal of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Testimony was also offered by Yisehak Abraham, who received the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship for his last four years of elementary school and all four years of high school. He said he was honored to represent “all past, present and future Opportunity Scholarship recipients and to advocate on their behalf.”

“So, who has this program served?” Abraham asked, adding, “It served me and thousands like me. Students and families who were looking for a choice that was a better or the best fit for their educational future. A choice that would not be available to them were it not for the existence of the OSP.”

Abraham testified that the “OSP has had a tremendous, positive impact on my life,” explaining that after feeling as a fourth grader that his public school was not the right school for him, he received an Opportunity Scholarship as a fifth grader to attend Rock Creek International School, a school that had laptops for each student, language classes and caring teachers. He wrote his first extended essay on the ancient Olympic games, and the following summer, he was able to go to Greece through the school.

Then Abraham continued receiving the Opportunity Scholarship as an honors student at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., where he graduated in 2012 after winning local and national awards in debating and oratorical contests. Abraham graduated from Columbia University in 2016, where he majored in economics.

“Currently I am a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute where I focus primarily on financial markets,” he said. “In the future, I hope to continue to utilize economics to analyze policies to benefit the public.” 

While concluding his testimony, Abraham noted, “OSP allowed me and my family a choice,” a choice and a future “that would not have been if the OSP program had not existed.”

And reflecting on the program’s importance, he added, “Who are we, but the products of the choices we made from the options we were given?”

In response to a question, Abraham said receiving the Opportunity Scholarship was like getting a “golden ticket.”

“It’s a huge equalizer,” providing parents with a choice, and students with an opportunity for success, he said.

The final person testifying, Gerald Smith Jr., the principal of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, noted that education helps people get out of poverty, and school choice helps “parents and their scholars to find places that fit the needs of their unique academic profile.”

Catholic schools and other private institutions, he said, help transform every aspect of a young man or young woman’s life, so they can build a better world.

“Programs supported by the SOAR grant transform men and women with not only brilliant minds, but more importantly men and women with fully sanctified hearts guided by virtue,” said Smith. He later said that with their hearts formed, students have a goal of not only going on to college, but understand their ultimate goal is getting into heaven.

Sen. Johnson asked the principal what makes St. Thomas More Catholic Academy special, and the principal responded, “The scholars make the school what it is. It’s home. They get the same love Christ gives us every day.”

Smith added, “We’re all mission oriented to make sure our scholars have what it takes to be a success in life.”

A girl asked him what would happen to students without the program, and Smith said St. Thomas More Catholic Academy enables young scholars to be partners in their educational success. “Here in this school, you have the opportunity for your world to be broadened, and for doors to be opened.”

A mother shared the story of how her daughter, a scholarship recipient, has blossomed since she began attending St. Thomas More.

Concluding the hearing, Sen. Johnson said, “Thanks to all of you involved in this very special place.”