Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews

Why private school vouchers have no future

Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post - The San Miguel School is a voucher school located on Georgia Avenue in Northwest.

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If I were a D.C. parent with little money and a child in a bad public school, I would happily accept a taxpayer-supported voucher to send my kid to a private school. But I still don’t think voucher programs are a good use of education dollars, particularly after reading a startling story on The Washington Post’s front page Sunday.

My colleagues Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown revealed that the $133 million appropriated for vouchers in the District since 2004 have gone to private schools with no need to report publicly how well their students are doing. Some of those schools have dubious curricula and inadequate facilities. At least eight of the 52 schools with voucher students are not accredited.

Jay Mathews

writes a weekly column about education and the Class Struggle blog.


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Take a look at the Academy for Ideal Education in Northeast Washington. Almost all of its students are in the voucher program run by the nonprofit D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. The school’s founder, Paulette Jones-Imaan, believes in learning through music, stretching and meditation, Layton and Brown reported.

The Academy for Ideal Education does not have to reveal its results on the nationally standardized test voucher students are required to take, but I suspect those children are not learning much. I have some experience with the Ideal Academy, a charter high school also founded by Jones-Imaan. In 2009, I wrote about it having some of the lowest achievement rates in the city, which I knew because charters have to report their test scores. The D.C. authorizing board for charters forced it to close. Sadly, no agency has that power over private schools using vouchers.

Apparently there are not even reliable health standards. Layton and Brown visited one school where “the only bathroom . . . had a floor blackened with dirt and a sink coated in grime.”

Ed Davies, interim executive director of the agency running the voucher program, told Layton and Brown that quality control is “a blind spot” because the law has so many holes. The same goes for voucher programs in 14 states. Advocates for parent choice think vouchers are a good way to free educators and parents from oppressive government bureaucrats, but a voucher surge is likely to strangle that tradition of private school independence.

Only 1,584 D.C. students are receiving vouchers, just 2 percent of all publicly funded students in the city. The lack of oversight Layton and Brown exposed is disturbing, but it affects too few students to inspire much action. Imagine what would happen if voucher enrollment grew to match D.C. charter school enrollment — 35,019, or 42 percent of all publicly funded students.

A voucher program that size would cost about $450 million a year in tax dollars. At that price, the current lack of accreditation and accountability would no longer be tolerated. Private schools would have to accept severe regulation if they wanted voucher funds. Goodbye to their flexibility and autonomy. The voucher movement would die from its own success.

The temptations of voucher cash are great. The D.C. program pays $8,000 a year for every elementary school student and $12,000 for each high-schooler. Rent an old house or storefront, lure parents with promises of a free private school education and the money rolls in. Teachers don’t need credentials, just four-year college degrees. Schools don’t have to publish their test results or answer questions from pesky reporters.

The better alternatives for those of us who want more parent choice are innovative regular public schools and independent charter schools. They are regulated, accredited and accountable. They have to report their test scores. They can be closed if they don’t work.

Vouchers sound good to the relatively few families who get them, but they will never be able to help more than a tiny fraction of the students who need better schools.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.

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