June 2004 Church & State | People & Events

Officials with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., say they are having trouble implementing the city's new federally funded voucher plan and need more tax aid.

Congress approved the plan, the nation's first federally funded voucher program, earlier this year, and President George W. Bush signed the bill into law. The $65-million program will last five years. Under its provisions, 1,700 low-income students in the nation's capital could receive vouchers worth up to $7,500 apiece.

Although the archdiocese is not administering the program, it runs 28 Catholic schools in Washington that are expected to receive the bulk of the money. Church officials say they need at least $2 million to get the schools ready for the voucher students.

Federal officials seem unwilling to help. Nina Shokraii Rees, a former staf­fer at the Heritage Foundation who is overseeing the voucher program for the U.S. Department of Education, urged the church to stop looking to the government for relief.

"The archdiocese needs to raise private money to make up the difference," Rees told The Washington Post. "Whatever they charge the students to participate in this program cannot be different from the customary tuition and fees they charge their other students."

The archdiocese has also been unclear about how many voucher students it can take in September. Church officials originally put the figure at 1,200 but now say 600 to 700 is more likely.

Meanwhile, many D.C. residents appear wary of the plan. As the May deadline for applying approached, only about 1,100 households had turned in applications on behalf of about 2,000 children, The Post reported.

The number was expected to be much higher. When the plan was first announced, D.C. officials compiled a list of 4,000 households, representing an estimated 8,500 students, who inquired about vouchers. Many of those who inquired never applied.

One parent told The Post she doesn't believe the plan will deliver. Mary Jackson told the newspaper she worries that the private schools will charge additional fees or expel voucher children at the first opportunity.

"It's a big hoax," said Jackson, whose two children attend Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center, a public school listed as failing. "It's a bunch of hot air. I'll find a better public school to send my kids before I get a voucher."