The Archdiocese of Washington apparently would not give final agreement to participate in the voucher program until it received assurance from DOE that it could raise tuition for new students
Under the new voucher program, federal taxpayers are paying as much as $7,500 annually in tuition and fees for each voucher student attending a private school. Documents provided to us by DOE indicate that the Archdiocese of Washington would not agree to have its schools participate in the voucher program until it had received assurance from the Department that it would be lawful for it to raise tuition rates for new students. The fact that the proposal by the Archdiocese covered only new students indicates that the contemplated tuition hike would allow the Archdiocese schools to capitalize on the new voucher program by obtaining more in taxpayer funds than they otherwise would have.
According to a letter sent by the DOE’s General Counsel on March 9, 2004 to Dr. Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, the Superintendent of Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of Washington, Weitzel-O’Neill had sent a memorandum dated February 27, 2004 to DOE “concerning the plans of the Archdiocese of Washington for charging tuition and fees to students attending Archdiocesan Catholic Schools in the District of Columbia and whether those plans comply with” the provision of the D.C. voucher law prohibiting participating private schools from charging voucher students more in tuition and fees than the schools customarily charge to other students.33 DOE’s response to the Weitzel-O’Neill memorandum indicates that the Archdiocese was apparently considering ways to increase its tuition and fees with the result of increasing the public monies it would get from voucher students.
According to DOE’s response, the Archdiocese memo set out two options. Under Option A, the “Cost Based Tuition Model,” the Archdiocese “would raise tuitions to represent the actual costs of educating students, but would ‘grandfather’ families currently enrolled so that those families would continue to be charged the current tuition. Only newly entering families would be charged the new cost-based tuition.” (Emphasis added.) DOE opined that this would be consistent with the voucher law, so long as “new families of both scholarship and non-scholarship students will be charged the same cost-based tuition and fees; and any financial assistance to non-scholarship students is based on an individual assessment of need or merit, and not an across-the-board subsidy to offset the increase in tuition.”
Under Option B, the “Tuition Plus Fees Model,” different fees would be charged to different students, “to cover the costs of the services needed by the student…[F]ees will cover the per pupil cost of all academic programs outside the required curriculum…” Examples were given for remedial and language programs for ESL students. Again, DOE opined that this would be consistent with the voucher law, so long as voucher and non-voucher students “with comparable needs and services are charged comparable tuition and fees” and “the fees will be assessed for scholarship students only for services that they in fact need and receive.”
DOE ended the letter by saying “We hope that with this letter indicating the acceptability of your tuition and fees options, we may look forward to welcoming the Archdiocesan Catholic Schools of the District of Columbia to the D.C. School Choice Program.”34
We do not know whether the Archdiocese has actually put either of these “options” into effect –- raising tuition for new students only and/or changing the schools’ fee schedules.35 If so, the schools would be receiving more public funds from the voucher program than they otherwise would have if tuition had remained at the rates in effect prior to the implementation of the voucher program. The voucher program, however, is supposed to be about giving low-income children greater educational opportunities, not subsidizing private schools with public funds.36 Congress and the District of Columbia should investigate whether any private schools participating in the voucher program have taken advantage of the program and federal taxpayers in this manner.37