D.C. Vouchers: First-Year Flaws and Failings

Department of Education documents show legislated priorities not met, inconvenient information obscured by program administrators

Washington, D.C. - Documents obtained from the U.S. Department of Education through a Freedom of Information Act request and other publicly available information indicate that the first year of the federally-mandated school voucher program in the District of Columbia has been marked by a failure to achieve legislatively determined priorities, an inability to evaluate the program in the manner required by Congress, and efforts by administrators to obscure information that might reflect poorly on the program, according to a report released today by People For the American Way Foundation.

The report, Flaws & Failings: A Preliminary Look at the Problems Already Encountered in the Implementation of D.C.’s New Federally Mandated School Voucher Program, demonstrates that concerns raised by opponents of the multimillion dollar voucher program were and continue to be valid. As the report discusses:

  • Although the voucher law passed by Congress requires that priority be given to low-income students attending D.C. public schools labeled most in need of improvement, it appears that fewer than 75 of the more than 1,300 students who were awarded vouchers came from those schools.
  • Although the voucher law requires a comparison between the performance of students using vouchers and those students who sought vouchers but did not receive them, so few students applied for vouchers that the program cannot be evaluated in this manner for the first year of the program.

“It is clear that in its first year the D.C. voucher program is not meeting the priorities claimed by its proponents and set out in legislation,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People For the American Way Foundation. “And it seems that program administrators were intent on making the program look good by diverting attention from inconvenient facts.”

Materials obtained in response to a FOIA request include e-mails between Department of Education (DOE) officials and representatives from the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF), the group chosen to administer the voucher program. Those communications document, among other things, discussions between DOE and WSF about portraying problematic information in the best possible light and obscuring information from the public and members of Congress.

Other problems discussed in the report include:

  • More than 200 students already enrolled in private schools have received vouchers. Administrators from WSF requested that even more vouchers go to students already enrolled in private schools in order to boost the number of overall recipients and demonstrate a greater interest in the voucher program.
  • DOE and WSF have given schools incomplete information about the non-discrimination obligations of private schools in D.C. that are participating in the voucher program. The information provided was confined to the provisions of federal law, which offers fewer civil rights protections for students and employees at private schools, particularly religious schools, than does the D.C. Human Rights Act. Nevertheless, no information was provided to voucher schools about the D.C. Human Rights Act, which among other things prohibits all schools in D.C., private as well as public, from discriminating against students and employees based on a number of factors, including disability and sexual orientation.
  • Proponents of the D.C. voucher program have attempted to obscure limitations on the “choices” actually available to students. The program allows private schools to impose their normal admissions tests and thus pick and choose which students to accept. In addition, private schools participating in the voucher program that charge tuition higher than the voucher amount of $7,500 are permitted to charge the additional amount to voucher students, limiting the availability of meaningful “choice” for low-income families. Both these facts were obscured in a “Frequently Asked Questions” document prepared by WSF, and reviewed by DOE, for the benefit of private schools interested participating in the voucher program.

Neas noted that millions of dollars are being poured into the D.C. voucher program even though Congress has significantly underfunded the No Child Left Behind initiative in D.C.’s public schools.

“Taxpayer-funded private school vouchers have consistently failed to live up to the promises of their proponents,” said Neas, “So far, the D.C. voucher program is no different. Rather than continuing to promote ideologically driven voucher programs, Congress should work in a bipartisan fashion to fund proven public school reforms that will improve educational opportunity for the vast majority of D.C. students who rely on the city’s public schools.”

A copy of the report, Flaws & Failings: A Preliminary Look at the Problems Already Encountered in the Implementation of D.C.’s New Federally Mandated School Voucher Program, is available here.

People For the American Way Foundation believes that public education is a core democratic institution, and that public schools are a crucial engine of opportunity for Americans of all backgrounds. PFAWF supports proven public school reforms and opposes publicly funded vouchers and similar schemes that divert scarce education funds into religious and other private schools, where they have the potential to benefit only a small minority of students. PFAWF and its advocacy affiliate have published a number of analyses of existing voucher programs.

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Read PFAWF's rebuttal to the WSF attack on this report.48.17 KB
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