Flaws and Failings

A Preliminary Look at the Problems Already Encountered in the Implementation of the District of Columbia’s New Federally Mandated School Voucher Program

A report by People for the American Way Foundation

Introduction

In early 2004, Congress passed, and President Bush signed into law, an omnibus appropriations act that also created a new federally-funded school voucher program in the District of Columbia, the first such federally-funded voucher program in the country. Under this program, for five years beginning with the 2004-05 school year, federal taxpayers will subsidize the tuition of low-income students in the District of Columbia who can gain admittance to religious and other private schools, up to a maximum of $7,500 per year per student. For fiscal year 2004, more than thirteen million dollars have been appropriated for the voucher program.

According to the voucher law, the primary purpose of the voucher program is to allow low-income students in D.C.’s public schools most in need of improvement (as defined by the federal law) to leave those schools and attend “higher-performing” schools. However, there is no requirement in the law that the private schools participating in the voucher program demonstrate that they are in fact “higher-performing” (e.g., by subjecting themselves to the same criteria applied to public schools under federal law).

To the contrary, the Senate rejected an amendment offered by Senator Mary Landrieu that would have required private schools participating in the voucher program to be subject to some of the same requirements as public schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. Ironically, the voucher legislation uses the No Child Left Behind Act to define which public schools in D.C. are most in need of improvement and whose students are therefore given priority in the voucher program.

Moreover, although the voucher program is supposed to provide educational “choice” to low-income students, the law does not prohibit private schools from imposing admissions tests or other admissions requirements on voucher students, or from charging them tuition in excess of the maximum voucher amount of $7,500 per year if in fact their tuition rates are higher. And while the vast majority of private schools participating in the D.C. voucher program are religious schools, there is also no provision in the law protecting voucher students who attend religious schools from being required to participate in religious worship or other religious activities that may be contrary to their own beliefs, or from prohibiting those schools, now funded with public monies, from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion.

The voucher program has been imposed on the District of Columbia over the objection of many local elected officials, including D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has repeatedly spoken out against a federally-mandated voucher program in D.C., not only because it is unsound and ignores the real needs of students in D.C., but also because it tramples on the right of the District’s residents to govern themselves. And while the voucher program has the support of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and School Board Chair Peggy Cooper Cafritz, they do not speak for the majority of School Board members. To the contrary, on July 17, 2002, the D.C. School Board, by a unanimous vote except for the abstention of one member, passed a resolution opposing the imposition of a voucher program on D.C.

As more recently stated by School Board member William Lockridge, “The current pro-voucher advocacy of our Board President Ms. Cooper Cafritz reflects her personal change of heart regarding this issue; however, the Board has spoken. We do not want vouchers in the District of Columbia.” On July 24, 2003, six members of the D.C. Council and four members of the D.C. School Board sent a letter to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia urging that vouchers be removed from the D.C. appropriations bill and explaining that funds were urgently needed for the city’s public schools. The D.C. voucher program was passed by the House only after the Republican leadership held four separate votes on it, and held the vote open well beyond the normal time period in order to secure passage of the bill.

The voucher program is being run by the U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”) in cooperation with the Mayor of the District of Columbia, and administered by a private organization called the Washington Scholarship Fund. The Washington Scholarship Fund was created in 1993 to provide privately-funded “scholarships” to students in the District of Columbia to allow them to attend religious and other private schools. Its Board chair is Joseph E. Robert, Jr., “a local real estate mogul who has spent millions promoting school vouchers...”

Robert has “ties to such national figures in the voucher movement as Wal-Mart heir John Walton and his American Education Reform Council; Howard Fuller... who now heads the Black Alliance for Educational Options; and the Institute for Justice...” At the Department of Education, the voucher program is overseen by the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which is headed by Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Nina Rees, a staunch advocate of publicly-funded school voucher programs who worked at the Heritage Foundation and at the Institute for Justice before joining the Bush administration.

Given the very serious concerns raised by publicly-funded voucher programs generally and this program specifically, with millions of dollars in federal funds already at stake, and with millions more authorized but not yet appropriated, it is important to take a look at how the program is being implemented. Through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Education, People For the American Way Foundation has obtained documents pertaining to the initial implementation of the voucher program.

From these documents, as well as from other publicly available information, it is clear that the voucher program has not been implemented as Congress intended, that it is not truly serving the priorities set out in the statute, and that, for this school year at least, it cannot even be evaluated as the statute requires. Among other things:

  • while the voucher law gives the greatest priority to students attending D.C. public schools most in need of improvement as defined by federal law, it appears that fewer than 75 of the more than 1,300 students who received vouchers came from those public schools
  • at the same time, more than 200 students already enrolled in private schools, almost three times that number, have received vouchers
  • so few students applied for vouchers that the voucher program cannot be evaluated this year by comparing the performance of students who are using vouchers with that of those students who sought but could not get vouchers, although the voucher law requires that such a comparison be made
  • the vast majority of schools participating in the voucher program are religious schools, as to which there are serious concerns of government-funded discrimination based on disability and religion, as well as concerns regarding religious coercion; additionally, the Department of Education and the Washington Scholarship Fund have not given participating schools adequate information about applicable D.C. civil rights law protecting students and employees from discrimination on a number of bases, including disability and sexual orientation
  • D.C. voucher proponents have attempted to obscure factors that limit how much “choice” is actually available to students

We caution that this is a preliminary report, that the voucher program is in its first year, and that the Department of Education refused to produce all of the documents responsive to our FOIA request. Nevertheless, the documents that have been provided to us indicate that the serious concerns raised about the D.C. voucher program prior to its implementation were and remain valid. It is imperative that Congress and the District of Columbia take a hard look at how the millions of dollars in taxpayer funds already appropriated for the D.C. voucher program are being spent before any more public funds are appropriated.

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