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Metro: D.C. School Choice

With Nina Rees
Deputy Under Secretary for Innovation and Improvement, Department of Education
Wednesday, September 3, 2003; 10:00 AM

On Sept. 4, the full House is expected to take up D.C. appropriations legislation that Republicans plan to amend to provide $15 million to create a school voucher program for the District. School voucher legislation has been stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Supporters argue that the voucher program, part of the Bush administration's school choice initiative, is key to providing lower-income families with the ability to get quality education for their children. Opponents say the program would damage public education by diverting tax dollars to religious and other private schools.

Nina Rees, deputy under secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the Department of Education, was online Wednesday, Sept. 3 at 10 a.m. ET, to discuss the issue of D.C. school choice.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


D.C. Teacher: As a teacher in D.C. I often go back and forth on school vouchers. I agree that students should be given a choice, and I hope that they take advantage of that option. Yet, I would also like to point out that there are many D.C. teachers working hard to provide quality education to all students. Unfortunately we face a losing battle without the support in our budget for needed supplies. Additionally, we all need to be reminded that a child's education begins at home, and that the parents play a valuable role in their educational development.

Nina Rees: Of course parents are extremely important in the education equation and we need to find ways to engage them better. However, as the Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, continuously reminds us, schools can make a tremendous impact on a child's education and well-being. In fact, we have many examples of schools that have been able to overcome all the odds and raise the achievement of the students that some schools continue to leave behind. But this is a partnership. We need to work with teachers, principals and parents to reach our goals. In regards to the budget/funding issue, the Administration has not submitted or supported any voucher proposal that would reduce funding for public education.


Washington, D.C.: Isn't it true that the amount that will be provided to students will do very little to defray the costs of private schools in the district. I hear that private school costs like from $10,000-$12,000 in some instances in D.C. Doesn't your proposal call for only providing $5,000 or about half. Where would they get the other half?

Nina Rees: The DC Student Opportunity Scholarship Act would offer up to $7,500 to low-income parents to select a school of choice for their children. In many private schools, tuition is well under $7,500. In fact, based on surveys of 60 out of about 84 private schools in DC (about three-fourths) by the Cato Institute, the Washington Scholarship Fund, and the Archdiocese of Washington, 38 (out of 60) offer tuition of $7,500 or less. Furthermore, the average tuition in schools that charge under $7,500 is about $4,000, according to various studies.


Washington, D.C.: I am concerned that the most formative ages of pre-K and K will not be provided for. What ages will be covered by the vouchers ?

Nina Rees: The DC Student Opportunity Scholarship Act is designed for students in K-12.


Washington, D.C.: How does the Federal Government rationalize imposing this legislation on the citizens of the District? Do you believe this initiative would be helped by the District having full voting rights in Congress?

Nina Rees: The proposal before Congress has the support of the Mayor, the head of the Education Committee on the City Council and of the President of the school board, as well as thousands of parents. These leaders have asked Congress to enact a school choice plan for DC. Congress and the Administration is simply answering their calls for additional options.


Washington, D.C.: But won't federally funded vouchers take money away from the public school system? Why not just spend the money fixing the system already in place?

Nina Rees: The Administration has not submitted or supported any voucher proposal that would reduce funding for public education. To the contrary, President Bush's budget proposals have provided record Federal funding for education, and his "Choice Incentive Fund" would provide new money, in addition to all the other funding available, for communities that want to experiment with approaches to choice that include both public and private options.

More generally, a voucher program would give parents greater choices for the education of their children. This might result in a reallocation of resources across the public and private sectors, but should not, in and of itself, reduce the level of public funding available to educate elementary and secondary school students. If vouchers bring about improved achievement and increased parental satisfaction, they could even encourage communities to provide more funding for schools.

As the Secretary has noted, the District spends more than most other inner city school systems on its schools. Yet, its test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are at the very bottom compared to other cities. Clearly money alone is not the solution.


Washington, D.C.: The schools are so horrendous in D.C., how can anyone object to a new idea like vouchers? It's not as if the school board or teacher's union has had and original thought in decades.

Nina Rees: We agree!! As research on the school choice program in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida indicates, school choice is not only an effective tool for raising student achievement for those who leave the poor performing public schools; but it is also an effective reform for raising the performance of the public schools left behind. In fact some of the strongest advocates for school choice in Milwaukee are members of its Public School Board.


Van Ness, Washington, D.C.: Basic questions:
How many students attend D.C. public schools?
How much money has been set aside for this program (i.e., how many students can be funded)?
How many students do you expect to take advantage of the program this year/future years?

Nina Rees: Around 68,000 students attend DC public schools.
The President has asked and so far, Congress has set aside $15 Million for the School Choice plan.
Roughly 2000 students stand to benefit from this plan.


Van Ness, Washington, D.C.: Am I right that one of the advantages of private or charter schools is a reduction in the paperwork, mandatory curriculums and other non-classroom hassles of public schools? Is it "legal" to have students attend schools without these controls? If so, what is the argument for keeping ANY of these burdens on regular public schools?

Nina Rees: Yes, it is true that private schools and charter schools in states with strong charter school laws spend less on overhead and paperwork than public schools do. However, private and charter schools are also held to a higher standard by their customers, the parents, for they have to be accountable for raising student achievement. To this end, states and districts may wish to wave certain paperwork requirements from public schools that are willing to be held accountable for greater student achievement.


Chicago, Ill.: Under NCLB, can distance learning (both video conferencing and online) be used to provide school choice for students at NCLB sanctioned schools instead of transferring the students to other schools? Thank you.

Brandon Taylor
Director of Distance Learning
Chicago Public Schools

Nina Rees: That is a good question. While NCLB allows students in under-performing schools to attend a virtual school (approved by the state), we do not believe that schools that are in need of improvement, corrective action or restructuring are the best settings for delivery of services (through video conferencing and online services). Still, this is a complicated law and we are happy to discuss this issue with you at greater length.


Washington, D.C.: What will be expected of schools that accept vouchers under the program? Will the vouchers lead to federal involvement in school governance?

Nina Rees: Under our plan, a grantee will be selected to administer the program. This grantee will then have to ensure the quality of the private schools that participate. We do not envision any additional requirements placed on the private schools. However these schools may not discriminate against students based on race, gender, country of origin and color.


Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: Could these vouchers be used in parochial schools? I don't want my tax dollars to be used to fund someone else's religious education!

Nina Rees: Yes. Just as a low-income students can apply for a federal Pell Grant to attend Notre Dame University to study divinity, our plan does not discriminate against the K-12 schools that parents wish to select for their students. We believe that parents are in the best position to decide which school to send their children to - and the Supreme Court has found school choice to be constitutional.


Washington, D.C. Educator: If Congress acts, what will be the process for a school to accept students who qualify under the Act?

Will their be a long period of lag time between passage of the law and children actually being able to choose a school?

Nina Rees: Once Congress enacts and the President signs the plan into law, the Department of Education will hold a competition to seek applicants who are interested in administering the program. These applications will then go under a rigorous peer review and the entity that will ultimately get selected will be charged with administering the program. This entity will then need to put in place a procedure for attracting students and schools to the program. Ultimately, it will be up to the private schools to decide if they are interested in participating in the program.

We hope that the proposal will be enacted during the school year after the law is signed.


Washington, D.C.: If passed by Congress, will the vouchers be made available for the current school year? And who will administer this program?

And will you ask to renew the appropriation for succeeding years?

Nina Rees: We will try to get the program up and running as fast as possible but it is more likely that the program will start at the beginning of the next school year.

A public or private entity in the District of Columbia with strong ties to the community will be selected to administer the program.

This is a 5 year school choice pilot so we would need annual appropriations to continue the program.


Anacostia, Washington, D.C.: Ms Rees, if vouchers are approved and are a success, what do you see as the future of an urban public school system like Washington's? Why wouldn't it end up serving only as a catch-all for the kids at the very bottom -- the ones whose parents aren't involved enough to choose vouchers or charters, and the special ed kids who need services that private schools won't provide?

Nina Rees: As the Milwaukee school choice program has shown, a well-crafted school choice plan will encourage the public schools to do better. Studies by Caroline Hoxby, a Harvard Professor, have also shown that in places where parents have choices between public schools or between public and private schools, the overall quality of both school systems increase, as well as graduation rates and future earnings of students in both public and private schools.


Tallahassee, Fla.: Nina: We have seen first hand the positive effect of vouchers here in Florida. I believe it is morally wrong to compel a child to attend a failing school. As a conservative, I also believe we have to get some measure of accountability from vouchers. Do you believe that requiring students to be tested who accept vouchers will be enough of an accountability measure or should we have additional measures?

Nina Rees: A good accountability plan should focus more on student outcomes, rather than other requirements that risk burdening schools with added paperwork and bureaucracy.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: What criteria will be used to select the 2,000 students? Will it be needs based or a lottery?

Nina Rees: The students must be at or below 185% of the poverty line. There will be a lottery but students from schools in need of improvement, corrective action or restructuring as defined under No Child Left Behind will be given a preference. In other words a low-income student in one of the existing 15 low-performing schools in DC will have a higher chance of getting selected by lottery to participate in the program.


Washington, D.C.: How can you reconcile the administration philosophical belief that local government (rather than Washington) knows best with the administration's arm twisting of Mayor Williams over the voucher issue?

Nina Rees: The proposal before Congress was drafted with the help Mayor Williams, Councilman Kevin Chavous and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. These 3 are locally elected officials who represent the District's voters. We support their efforts to bring additional choices to the DC school system to help boost student achievement.


Nina Rees: I appreciate all the questions and welcome further questions on the topic. Please feel free to call us at the Department of Education. Thank you!


Nina Rees: This week the United States House of Representatives will consider DC appropriations legislation that includes President Bush's historic bipartisan reform initiative designed to bring hope and opportunity to thousands of DC children struggling in under-performing schools. The legislation will include $15 million for the District of Columbia to launch a pilot program offering the most at-risk students a lifeline of up to $7,500 in scholarships to attend better performing schools throughout the District.

Here at the Department we are confident that this Demonstration program will be a great help to the school system and to the thousands of students it stands to serve. Accountability is one of the hallmarks of the President and the Secretary's education reform platform. School choice is one way to ensure our schools are accountable to those they serve. As Mayor Williams has noted: "The people who are not benefiting [in public schools] are people with the lowest incomes, with the biggest problems and the most severe challenges. And I think it's about time to give them a choice." We agree!


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