Flaws and Failings

Vouchers Miss Their Aim

DOE’s documents indicate that of the more than 1300 students who were awarded vouchers for the 2004-05 school year, fewer than 75 attended D.C. public schools that are most “in need of improvement” -- the highest priority group specified by Congress

According to the statute creating the D.C. voucher program, the primary purpose of the program is to enable low-income students to escape public schools that are in need of improvement as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”), and to attend higher-performing schools.12 To that end, Congress listed three priorities to be followed by the organization or organizations (“eligible entities”) chosen to administer the voucher program, with the first priority given to low-income students in D.C. who attend public schools in need of improvement under NCLB:

In awarding grants under this title, the Secretary shall give priority to applications from eligible entities who will most effectively--
(1) give priority to eligible students who, in the school year preceding the school year for which the eligible student is seeking a scholarship, attended an elementary school or secondary school identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring under section 1116 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 6316);
(2) target resources to students and families that lack the financial resources to take advantage of available educational options; and
(3) provide students and families with the widest range of educational options.

--Pub. L. No. 108-199, Div. C, Title III, Sec. 306.

In 2004, there were fifteen public schools in the District of Columbia that were “in need of improvement” under NCLB.13 Nonetheless, according to the documents provided to us by DOE, only 74 students from those schools applied for vouchers.14 While the documents do not reveal whether all of those applicants actually received a voucher, even assuming they did, this means that fewer than 75 of the 1,359 vouchers awarded for 2004-0515 -- less than 6% -- went to the students prioritized by Congress. At the same time, and as further discussed below, nearly three times that many vouchers -- 208 -- were given to students already attending private schools.

In a May 16, 2004 e-mail, Sally Sachar, the head of the Washington Scholarship Fund (“WSF”), expressed her hope that vouchers be given to all of the applicants from the 15 “needs improvement schools,” particularly given the congressional priorities and “particularly because it really is NOT VERY MANY CHILDREN.” E-mail from Sachar to Nina Rees et al. (May 16, 2004) (emphasis in original).16 WSF appears to have been very sensitive about the small number of vouchers that were awarded to students in the “needs improvement” schools, and certainly was not eager to share this information with the press, nor does it appear that the information was given out.

Indeed, in a June 9, 2004 e-mail from Sally Sachar entitled “Help for Press Release,” concerning the press release that WSF was drafting to announce the number of applicants for vouchers, Sachar wrote: “Can/should we say anything about how many are from the 15 needs improvement. Pretty sure we do not want to say this, but just wondering.” E-mail from Sally Sachar to Babette Gutmann, Nina Rees, Michelle Walker, et al. (June 9, 2004)(emphasis added).

On June 10, 2004, WSF issued a press release announcing the number of students who had applied for vouchers. While WSF stated in the release that a total of 1,721 eligible students had applied for vouchers, and that students in the 15 “needs improvement” schools would receive the highest priority when the vouchers were awarded, WSF did not mention the very small number of applicants from those schools. In the Washington Post article the very next day, that number was not mentioned either.17 Instead, the Post reported that approximately 1,200 low-income students would receive vouchers, including about 200 students already enrolled in private schools.

No doubt D.C. voucher advocates will attempt to defend the very small number of voucher students from the “needs improvement” schools in the same manner that WSF has defended the relatively few number of voucher applicants overall, by stating that this is the first year of the program and claiming that there was little time for implementation. (See, e.g., WSF press release of June 10, 2004.) Nonetheless, in the same time frame that WSF obtained applications from only 74 students in the public schools “needing improvement,” there were more than 1,100 applicants from other public schools, and more than 500 applicants from private schools.18

Moreover, the documents reveal that WSF made concerted efforts to target students in the 15 “needs improvement” schools. For example, a WSF document states that they made “direct phone calls to families, many of whom were in our fifteen low performing schools. The calls [sic] estimated that 20% answered and showed definite interest. The other 80% were mildly interested . . . or just did not answer the phone. We thought that was an excellent rate. Next year, we hope to have the time to be more organized and track the results of our outreach more carefully.” E-mail from Ruth Bollinger of WSF to Bernice Stafford (June 8, 2004) (ellipsis in original; emphasis added). On Saturday, May 8, 2004, Sally Sachar reported to DOE that WSF that day had made an

executive decision . . . that we need a more pointed, aggressive, concerted and very specific strategy to target the 15 needs improvement schools. Naturally, a lot of our efforts to date have reached these school communities (80,000 plus fliers, mailings, phone call outs . . . broad media effort by FFC, us and DCPSC, paid radio and print media, press releases (free media), etc. But we want to be sure that we have both done, and can say we have done, as much as we can with outreach to these 15 schools. . . . Given the priority given to this group in the statute, we just cannot take any chance with this –- from a programmatic, political, or press perspective. . . .

So, here is what we will do:
1. Extend the deadline for applicaitions [sic] until Friday, May 14.
2. Do extensive leafletting at 15 schools on M and T . . .
3. Keep our office open evenings through Friday evening. . .
4. Talk on Monday about what else we will do as part of this targeted outreach –- may do another meeting in the community next week on top of the two in SE on Monday. . . .

As the program operators, we just want to be 1000% sure that we have done whatever we can to reach our target families!

-- E-mail from Sally Sachar to Nina Rees, et al. (May 8, 2004) (emphasis added).19

Whether because of insufficient or misdirected efforts by WSF, time limitations, and/or lack of interest in the voucher program among D.C. parents, it is unclear exactly why WSF obtained so few applications from students in the “needs improvement” schools. However, whatever the reason or reasons, the fact remains that very few students from D.C.’s public schools most in need of improvement -- the students primarily targeted by Congress under the voucher program -- have been awarded vouchers for this school year.

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