February 1, 2011
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of members of People For the American Way, we urge you to oppose S. 206, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, which Senator Lieberman introduced last week. This bill would reauthorize the DC private school voucher program, the “temporary five-year pilot” program that has existed since 2003.
Despite its proponents’ claims, the program has simply not provided any significant improvement in the educational attainment of the enrolled students. Even worse, it has undermined our nation’s core constitutional principles.
The program weakens the separation of church and state. An overwhelming majority of participating students – more than three quarters – have used the voucher to attend religious schools. In other words, the program funnels taxpayer money into religious organizations. This is not simply a minor byproduct of an otherwise sound idea, but is instead the core of the program. 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.
The DC voucher program permits participating private institutions to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring, a key difference from an Ohio voucher plan that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2002. The use of federal dollars to subsidize religious discrimination raises significant constitutional concerns. As the Supreme Court has noted, “the Constitution does not permit the state to aid discrimination.”
The DC voucher scheme also fails 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, and No Child Left Behind. Private schools are not subject to the same requirements under these laws as public schools. As a result, the DC vouchers program deprives students of many of the important legal protections that parents, teachers, and legislators have worked so hard over the years to attain.
As if these problems were not enough, neutral analyses of the DC Voucher program demonstrate clearly that it simply has not significantly improved the educational attainment of the enrolled students. The United States Department of Education has conducted a rigorous evaluation of the program every year since 2007. Its final report(1) was issued in June 2010 and looked at the program in detail over the years, concluding that the use of a voucher had no statistically significant impact on overall student achievement in math or reading.
Even worse, the program failed to serve even those students that Congress designated as the highest priority for the program: those who applied from schools in need of improvement. The Final Report concluded that use of a voucher resulted in no statistically significant improvement in math or reading for this priority group.
DC public school students and their parents deserve better. Notably, their elected representatives, including the new mayor, a majority of the DC Council, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, oppose resurrecting the DC vouchers scheme. On a fundamentally local issue such as this, with no impact on anyone other than DC residents, their voice carries particular weight.
This pilot program was supposed to last only five years. Nevertheless, Congress continued to appropriate funds after that time so that students currently in the program could continue to graduation. FY 2011 is the last year with any students remaining in the program. No effort should be now made to resurrect a program that has failed. The evidence shows that the DC vouchers scheme has simply not proven to be an effective educational tool, nor is it faithful to our nation’s most important constitutional principles.
People For the American Way urges you to support DC students and oppose S. 206, so that we can better educate the children of our nation’s capital while protecting the Constitution that generations of Americans have fought to protect.
Michael B. Keegan
Executive Vice President for Policy and Program
(1) “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final Report,” Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, June 2010, http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20104018/pdf/20104018.pdf.
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