City on a Hill: No vouching for this program

November 20, 2013

The government shutdown brought national attention to the budget battles between D.C. and the Capitol, but it’s not just appropriations fights where Congress hamstrings the District. There are more subtle, insidious ways the boys on the Hill stick their noses in Washington’s local business. Take the so-called D.C. Opportunity Scholarship.

The scholarship is really a federal education voucher created in 2004 by Bush 43 and the GOP-controlled Congress and then pushed on then-Mayor Anthony Williams (D). The program is simple on the surface—select high performing, low income kids and give them federal dollars to pay for private school in D.C. Since 2004, it’s doled out more than $152 million in federal funds, but now critics are raising serious concerns that much of that money may have been spent in vain.

To understand the controversy, first understand that the District doesn’t really have a choice when it comes to accepting the voucher program. Senate Democrats actually voted to suspend the program in 2009, pointing to charter schools as a more acceptable alternative to DCPS than the private schools the scholarships fund. But after the Tea Party wave in the 2010 elections, the message changed. All the sudden, the Republicans were calling the shots on education policy, and they stuck to their guns on vouchers. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) warned D.C. officials they would cut funding for all District schools if the scholarship program wasn’t reinstated (yes, school spending must be Congressionally approved as well).

The Hill exerting such coercive power over a local issue is troubling enough. What’s worse is that the scholarship program is a flop by even the federal government’s standards.

As the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss recently outlined, problems surfaced even before the GOP pushed D.C. to reinstate the program. In 2007, the Government Accountability Office reviewed the voucher scheme at the request of Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Their report revealed a severe lack of oversight in the program. Some children, for instance, received funds to attend unaccredited schools and were taught by teachers without bachelor’s degrees.

Then, in 2010, a Department of Education report found “there is no conclusive evidence that the [program] affected student achievement” measured by student test scores. Standardized tests are certainly a problematic way to measure student achievement, but they remain the accepted approach for the educational establishment—proof the program is failing on its own terms.

Last year, the Post ran its own review of the voucher program and the results were even more startling. As reporters Lindsay Layton and Emma Brown wrote, hundreds of students used the money to attend unaccredited schools, “such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.”

If that weren’t enough, the GAO recently released another scathing review, this time targeting the nonprofit that runs the voucher program, the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation. The organization, the GAO says, “does not effectively oversee participating schools, has not implemented effective policies and procedures, and is unable to efficiently manage day-to-day program operations.”

Giving public funds to private schools is a complicated issue. Liberals who oppose vouchers often have little issue with federal Pell Grants that give money to students to attend private universities. But no one can deny that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship is broken, and that its issues point to inherent difficulties with any voucher program.

Whenever federal dollars are funneled into the private sector, there must be some form of oversight to ensure they are spent properly. This is important with every spending project, but even more crucial when we’re talking about students’ lives and not simply road or bridge constructions. But conservative education activists constantly push for as few limitations and regulations as possible—that’s the whole rationale behind school “choice,” they say. Well, this is what happens following their model.

Despite the multiple failings of the D.C. voucher program, Congressional Republicans have been ardent in their support of it since day one. It’s difficult not to view their position as cynical and political—an attempt to stick it to Democratically-dominated teachers unions rather than a genuine concern for students. No one can say for sure whether that’s actually on GOP minds, but two things are certain: vouchers in the nation’s capital have failed miserably, and that should make us skeptical as to whether they can ever work anywhere.

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Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice


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