People For the American Way

Department of Education Study Shows DC Voucher Program Championed By Right Wing Hurts Student Achievement

News and Analysis

A new congressionally mandated evaluation of the DC Voucher program has found that students using a voucher to attend private schools score worse in math a year later than their counterparts who applied for a voucher but were not offered one. Reading scores for voucher students were also lower, but not by a statistically significant amount. The evaluation was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

These results throw more cold water on voucher supporters’ enthusiasm for the program, but history suggests that privatization advocates are not deterred by dismal data. That’s why one scholar called the nomination of voucher cheerleader Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education “a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.”

In fact, proponents of diverting taxpayer dollars to religious schools are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will open the floodgates by overturning some state constitutional provisions that have made it harder to install private school voucher programs.

The DC voucher program was initially forced onto the District of Columbia by congressional Republicans who snuck it into a must-pass omnibus appropriations bill during the George W. Bush administration. Advocates for privatizing public schools have praised the program as offering a lifeline for poor students, but the new evaluation is far from the first study to question the value of this program or other voucher programs.

In 2012, for example, a Washington Post investigation found that quality control and accountability were lacking, and that hundreds of voucher students were attending unaccredited schools or those in “unconventional settings,” such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront.

Last month, a majority of members of the DC Council sent a letter to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, opposing legislation to reauthorize the voucher program. From their letter, which was written before the release of the Department of Education’s recent evaluation:

We write as locally elected officials to express our staunch opposition to any expansion of the federally funded school voucher program in the District of Columbia. Rather, the voucher program should be phased out because participation in the program and similar initiatives has not only failed to improve students’ academic performance, but worsened it, as found in a series of recent studies.

People For the American Way and the African American Ministers in Action were among 62 organizations that signed a National Coalition for Public Education letter opposing the reauthorization. The letter’s signers declare their opposition to all private school voucher programs, while noting that the DC program in particular “has proven ineffective and unaccountable to taxpayers.”