Flaws and Failings

Many Students Already in Private School

A significant number of vouchers have gone to students who were already in private school, and WSF apparently wanted that number to be even higher

According to the Washington Post, vouchers have been awarded for the 2004-05 school year to 208 students who were already enrolled in private schools. S. Chan and V. Strauss, “For Voucher Program, The Lessons Begin,” Washington Post (Sept. 5, 2004). While this is approximately 15% of the total number of students who were awarded vouchers for this school year (1,35920), and nearly three times the number who had been enrolled in public schools “in need of improvement,” the documents provided to us indicate that WSF wanted the number of private school students receiving vouchers to be even higher.

Before turning to those documents, we note that the very idea that students already enrolled in private schools would receive publicly-funded vouchers seems at odds with the purposes of the voucher program as stated by Congress. While the voucher legislation does not expressly prohibit vouchers from being awarded to students already enrolled in private schools, the first of the three priorities in the statute -- students attending public schools most in need of improvement -- completely excludes private school students, and the other two priorities are not genuinely served by awarding vouchers to students already attending private schools. As noted above, those two program priorities are “students and families that lack the financial resources to take advantage of available educational options” and “provid[ing] students and families with the widest range of educational options.” For students who are in fact already attending private schools and remain there, the voucher program is not expanding or widening their educational options at all.

Even the DOE seems to agree. In a set of Frequently Asked Questions written before the start of this school year and posted on DOE’s web site, DOE states that the voucher law does not preclude “children who are currently enrolled in private schools” from receiving vouchers. But DOE goes on to state:

However, they would not receive the priority for students enrolled in public schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring; nor would they be likely to receive the priority for students who lack the resources to take advantage of available educational options (since they already have the resources to attend a private school).21

This is exemplified by a story in the Washington Post, which reported that one of the students who received a voucher this year is in the eighth grade at Sidwell Friends, which charges $22,415 a year for tuition and which this student has attended since the fifth grade “on a nearly full private scholarship.” S. Chan and V. Strauss, “For Voucher Program, The Lessons Begin,” Washington Post (Sept. 5, 2004) (emphasis added). For this private school student, and others like her, vouchers did not expand educational options but instead replaced private funds with taxpayer dollars. Senator Dick Durbin had warned his colleagues of this possibility, observing that the language of the voucher program legislation contained “no prohibition . . . that the 1,000 to 2,000 vouchers that are created . . . will all be given to children who are already in private schools.” Vol. 149 Cong. Rec. S 11953 (Sept. 25, 2003)(statement of Sen. Durbin).22

Not only does the voucher legislation allow vouchers to be given to students already in private schools, it also essentially leaves the number of such vouchers awarded up to the discretion of the program administrators, subject only to the priorities set out in the legislation. Indeed, in a June 1, 2004 e-mail, Marsha Silverberg of DOE’s Institute of Education Sciences noted that there were “500 current private school students” seeking vouchers, and that “the number awarded scholarships is up to the policy makers. WE NEED THIS DECISION BY WEDNESDAY.” E-mail from Silverberg to Sally Sachar, Nina Rees, et al. (June 1, 2004)(emphasis added).23

WSF made a number of pleas to DOE to increase the number of private school students receiving vouchers, ostensibly to increase the total number of students receiving vouchers (and thus make the voucher program look more in demand).24 For example, in a May 22, 2004 e-mail, Sally Sachar asked Nina Rees and Marsha Silverberg if it would

be acceptable -- if we give scholarships to all of the public school students -- to increase the private school number to 300 -- so we could hit 1000. I really think hitting 1000 is important, if less than 1/3 are private (AND WE HAVE NOT DEPRIVED PUBLIC SCHOOL CHILDREN OF SPACE), the story will be FINE, I think. And we are totally tracking with the legislation in terms of priority. I just ask you to think about this as you are designing the lottery. As the program implementers, this is VERY DEFINITELY our priority. Would still leave a lot of ROOM for next year! I really really really urge you to consider this!!!!!25

Two days later, Sachar wrote to Rees: “If we give out scholarships to 1,000 public school kids we would very much like to give out 250 or 275 private school scholarships. That is still a low number relatively [sic] to the number of public school kids, and I think very defensible in light of the statute and if no public school kids are denied. I know I need to discuss this with Michelle Walker [of the Mayor’s office] and plan to.” E-mail from Sally Sachar to Nina Rees, et al. (May 24, 2004).

In another May 24 e-mail from Sachar to Rees, Sachar noted the desire to “[g]ive out as many private school as we feel we can justify legitimately given the politics, which believe me I understand . . .remember I am one of THEM!!!!! . . . I would like to have an understanding with you and Michelle Walker (and Nicole if need be) that we will make a decision about the private when we see how many public we have . . . Is that doable? That it could be 200 or possibly more if we have more public school kids, because then the ratio is less.” E-mail from Sally Sachar to Nina Rees (May 24, 2004)(ellipsis in original). Rees had written to Sachar earlier that day to say that “we will have a hard time justifying giving more scholarships to private school kids b/c people (not Rooney but [Senator Dianne] Feinstein) will think the system was rigged from the start to give preference to the kids who were getting WSF scholarships before.” E-mail from Rees to Sachar (May 24, 2004) (emphasis added).

It is clear from the above correspondence that both the DOE and WSF recognized the “political” sensitivity of giving vouchers to students already attending private schools. Indeed, Sally Sachar stated in a June 1, 2004 e-mail to Nina Rees, Michelle Walker and others regarding the drafting of a press release that WSF intended to issue to announce the number of students who had applied for vouchers: “We will have to decide how much we say preemptively about public school vs. private school students (we will definitely get asked this question, but we can decide whether it makes more sense to put it out there affirmatively or wait to be asked.) The number of private school students will be pretty small relatively speaking.”

According to one e-mail, Nina Rees of DOE and Michelle Walker of the Mayor’s office did not want the WSF press release to state specifically how many vouchers would be going to students already in private schools. “Nina and Michelle thought we should not state how many we will give to children already in private schools. In fact there are legal reasons for not locking into a number, but they thought it was better just not to be specific at all here.” E-mail from Gregory McCarthy (D.C. government) to Sally Sachar, et al. with Sachar comments (June 9, 2004).

In a June 10, 2004 e-mail exchange, Sally Sachar reported to Nina Rees that she had spoken with “Justin” (apparently Justin Blum of the Washington Post) and that “[h]e was very interested in the private school slot issue and I explained that this was a policy matter and a matter of balancing different priorities against legislative intent.” Rees also talked to Blum and told Sachar that he had told her (Rees) that Sachar had told him that it was “our” (DOE’s) policy call, which clearly Rees was disturbed about. Sachar replied that “I said over and over in NO uncertain terms that it was a joint decision!! Do I need to call him back?” Rees replied: “he may have just been fishing for something. I told him it was a joint decision. Just wanted to make sure b/c I don’t want to be left holding that bag. I thought we all agreed to it.” (Emphasis added.)

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