In September 2003, the House of Representatives passed the FY 2004 DC Appropriations bill (H.R. 2765) by a vote of 210-206, which included $10 million designated for a DC voucher program. The House had earlier added the District of Columbia Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003 (H.R. 2556) as an amendment by a vote of 205-203.
Because of controversy surrounding this outcome, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (Del-DC) called for a revote. The second time around, there were not enough votes to pass the amendment when time ran out. House leadership then held the vote open 20 minutes past the deadline in order to garner the votes necessary to tip the scales, and in the end, pass the amendment by one vote: 209-208. In the Senate, a similar type of DC voucher program was added to the DC appropriations bill.
The DC appropriations bill was later rolled into an omnibus appropriations package, which included six other appropriations bills. The DC voucher language survived conference negotiations and was signed into law.
Voucher legislation fails to require participating schools to adopt any of the standards under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) and would do little to prevent unlawful or discriminatory behavior by private schools. It is irresponsible to support measures that direct public funds to private schools over which there is no effective oversight.
Experience with other voucher programs illustrates the problems that can arise from lack of effective oversight and public accountability. In Cleveland, for example, one school in the voucher program operated for two years despite the fact that its 110 year-old building had no fire alarm or sprinkler system and had lead-based paint known to cause brain damage in children. Additionally, the school had to repay nearly $70,000 in tax dollars it had received for students not even enrolled there. In another school it was discovered that classroom instruction consisted of students sitting in front of a TV and watching recorded lessons.
The DC voucher legislation permits private voucher schools to exclude students based on gender, limited English proficiency, and disability. Further, voucher schools, unlike public schools, can and do expel students easily – enabling students admitted into the program one year simply to be turned away the next.
The DC voucher program has produced no findings that conclusively suggest a larger voucher program would lead to significant achievement gains for students. Furthermore, a US General Accounting Office review of state evaluations found little or no difference between the academic achievement of voucher students and public school students in Cleveland and Milwaukee—the two urban school systems with publicly funded voucher programs.
Voucher programs rob public school students of precious resources. The DC voucher program purports to provide low-income parents with “school choice” by giving them up to $7,500 to send their child to private school. The fact is, however, that this program provided at best 2% of DC students with fully funded vouchers in FY 2004.
Including administration costs, the Cleveland, Ohio voucher program cost taxpayers $33 million for the 2001-2002 school year and has resulted in the state spending more tax money per voucher student than it has for the other nearly 90% of Ohio’s public schoolchildren. Funds for the Cleveland voucher program have come out of the city funding from the state that is otherwise directed toward low-income public school students to be used for such programs as class size reduction dropout prevention, Head Start or pre-school, all-day kindergarten, reading improvement, and summer school.
In Wisconsin, taxpayers paid $58.4 million to fund the Milwaukee voucher program for the 2001-2002 school year. During that fiscal year, 45% of the Milwaukee voucher program was funded by a reduction in state general aid to Milwaukee public schools. Also during that school year, less than one out of five students enrolled in the voucher program had attended a public school the previous year. From 1998 to 2001, Wisconsin taxpayers paid an average of 46% more per child to send students to Milwaukee voucher schools than a parent pays to send their child to the very same private schools.
The DC voucher neglects the majority of students in the DC area by ignoring the real problems facing DC public schools. DC voucher proponents claim that “school choice” is needed because DC students feel unsafe in their schools, and because the schools are in a state of disrepair. Yet diverting resources to fund private school voucher programs has done nothing to address safety and maintenance problems.
While students attending DC public schools most in need of improvement are given the greatest priority, it appears that fewer than 75 of more than 1,300 students who received vouchers in the program’s first year came from those public schools. Further, more than 200 students enrolled in private schools have received vouchers.
The DC voucher program undermines the local control of DC residents. Former School Superintendent Paul Vance and Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (Del-DC) expressed their opposition to the DC voucher initiative when it was being debated in Congress. Polling has shown that 76% of DC voters oppose taxpayer-funded vouchers if they mean less money for public school students, with only 17 percent favoring such a diversion of public funds. In addition, in a 1981 referendum, DC voters overwhelmingly rejected private school vouchers by a vote of 89% to 11%.
The DC City Council even opposes the program, and continues to oppose expanding it into neighboring states.