Promoting Public Education: Fighting Vouchers in Our Nation’s Capital

Updated February 10, 2011

Our Position

Private school vouchers are a major component of a long-term campaign by the far right to undermine public schools and enrich religious organizations with government funds. Back in 2003, with the nearly six hundred thousand citizens of Washington, DC having no federal voting representation, Congress was able to impose upon our nation’s capital an experimental school voucher scheme. Rather than assist the local public education system, Congress decided to use the students in the District of Columbia as test subjects for ill-conceived voucher programs that divert precious resources from public schools and funnel them into private, mostly religious, schools. Eight years later, study after study has demonstrated that the DC vouchers have failed to achieve their purported goals. Nevertheless, conservatives in Congress are pushing to resurrect and expand this failed scheme. While there is no doubt that educational opportunities and standards must be improved across the country, allocating money to private schools at the expense of public school students is not the way to succeed. Public dollars must continue to fund public services.

Talking Points

Despite spending $70 million of taxpayer funding, the private school voucher experiment in DC has simply failed to achieve its promised academic gains. Analysis in the Department of Education’s 2010 final report “indicates no statistically significant overall impact of the Program on reading or math achievement after at least four years.”(1) The analysis further revealed that there were “no significant impacts on reading or math test scores for students who came from [schools in need of improvement], the subgroup of students for whom the statute gave top priority.”(2) In addition, researchers found no “evidence of achievement impacts” for “students who applied to the Program with relatively lower levels of academic performance.”(3) The program has also had no effect on student opinions on school satisfaction or safety.(4)

The private school voucher experiment in DC has weakened the separation of church and state for our nation’s capital. An overwhelming majority of participating students – more than three quarters – have used their private school vouchers to attend religious schools. Funneling taxpayer money into religious institutions is not simply an accidental byproduct of an otherwise sound idea, but is instead the core of the DC experiment. It is contrary to basic American values for the government to use taxpayer funds to empower churches to expand their religious outreach. Indeed, one of the cornerstones of religious liberty and historic innovations of the nation’s founders is that government may not compel citizens to support religion.

Congress continues to push private school vouchers on the District of Columbia despite opposition from DC’s elected leadership. Education policy is the archetypical local matter, yet Congress – with no voting representation for DC residents – has overridden the wishes of DC elected officials and the disenfranchised Americans they represent. DC’s nonvoting delegate to the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, strongly opposes private school vouchers. The mayor and a majority of the DC Council have also made public statements against the voucher program.

The private school voucher experiment in DC has left students without vital educational programs and facilities. According to the Department of Education’s 2010 final report, voucher program students in DC were far less likely to “attend a school that offered special programs for students who may be academically challenged,” disadvantaging students with learning problems and students learning English as a second language.(5) Furthermore, schools participating in the voucher program are less likely to provide nurses, counselors, art classes, or cafeteria facilities than non-voucher schools.(6)

The private school voucher experiment in DC has failed to adequately protect the rights of students, especially those most likely to need protection from discrimination or neglect. Children in public schools are protected by an array of federal laws put into place to remedy serious problems. These include Title IX, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Private schools are not subject to the same requirements under these laws as public schools. As a result, the private school voucher experiment in DC has deprived students of many of the important legal protections that parents, teachers, and legislators have worked so hard over the years to attain.

Voucher programs frequently lack proper oversight, accountability, and educational credentials. Schools that receive vouchers are not required to adopt any of the standards under DC law or No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and thus operate with little outside supervision. A 2007 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) discovered serious problems of mismanagement and insufficient accountability mechanisms in both participating private schools and the Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the voucher program.(7) Many schools lacked accreditation, teachers with bachelor’s degrees, and proper occupancy certifications; some did not even submit “evidence of educational soundness acceptable to the Board.”(8) Most troubling, GAO researchers discovered that tuition-free schools and institutions which “did not meet basic requirements to operate in the District” were collecting vouchers paid for by federal tax dollars.(9)

Despite the promises, vouchers do not provide meaningful school choice to DC families. Half of the schools participating in the voucher program had tuitions above the maximum $7,500 voucher, and unlike public schools, private schools are not legally-bound to accept all students.(10) The 2007 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) uncovered a “dearth of openings at the high school level,” and also discovered that students with a learning or physical disability were less likely to use their voucher.(11)

Private school voucher programs have a history of withholding and manipulating information to avoid oversight. Since private and parochial schools do not have to publicly release their students’ academic results, parents are often left without critical information when searching for a school. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) maintains that the Washington Scholarship Fund even “provided parents inaccurate information on teachers’ qualifications and tuition for some schools.”(12)

Vouchers divert aid away from the vast majority of DC students, and do not reach the students most in need of assistance. The private school voucher experiment in DC targets only a small number of students, and private and parochial schools can legally exclude students based on their academic performance, gender, disability, or English proficiency. Moreover, although the DC experiment prioritized students from “Schools In Need of Improvement,” or SINI’s, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found such students to be “underrepresented.”(13) Rather than renewing the voucher program, taxpayer money should be spent in more effective ways that would serve all students in Washington, DC.

Legislation

The DC School Choice Incentive Act of 2003 (H.R. 2673 Title III enacted as Public Law No: 108-199, Division C, Title III) established the first federally-funded private school voucher program, originally intended to be only a five-year pilot. After the fifth year, Congress declined to renew the program for new students, but continued to provide vouchers for those students already in the program through their graduation. That was not enough for voucher proponents in Congress. A 2009 effort by Senator John Ensign (R-NV) to extend it to a new class of students failed to pass. In 2010, in an amendment to an unrelated bill, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) attempted to renew it for five more years and provide $20 million in annual funding. His attempt was rejected a 55-42 vote (60 required). In 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH8) and Senator Lieberman once again introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR) (H.R. 471/S. 206) to renew and expand the program, including the acceptance of new students.

Action

Contact your Representative and Senators and tell them that all students deserve access to quality public education, including those in the District of Columbia who have no voting voice in Congress. Let them know that the DC private school voucher experiment has failed to achieve its purported goals and should be phased out. Urge them to oppose attempts, such as the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR) (H.R. 471/S. 206), to use severely limited federal resources to resurrect the program. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper explaining how it is wrong to subject DC students to a concept that has proven not to work and that undermines church-state separation.

Further Reading

American Association of University Women
American Federation of Teachers
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
National Education Association
National School Boards Association

(1) Dep’t of Education, Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final Report (June 2010) at 35. http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20104018/pdf/20104018.pdf
(2) Id. at 34.
(3) Id.
(4) Id. at 46, 50.
(5) Id. at 19.
(6) Id. at 20.
(7) Gov’t Accountability Office, District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program: Additional Policies and Procedures Would Improve Internal Controls and Program Operations, Pub. No. 08-9 (Nov. 2007) at 13. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d089.pdf
(8) Id. at 34.
(9) Id. at 26.
(10) Dep’t of Education Final Report at 17.
(11) GAO Report at 30.
(12) Id. at 4.
(13) Id. at 23.

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