By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007
A voucher program designed to send low-income children in the District to better-performing private schools has allowed some students to take classes in unsuitable learning environments and from teachers without bachelor's degrees, according to a government report.
The shortcomings are detailed in a draft prepared by the Government Accountability Office about the $12.9 million D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. The GAO said the program lacks financial controls and has failed to check whether the participating schools were accredited.
The report, obtained by The Washington Post, assesses how the D.C. government, federal education officials and the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund have handled the voucher program, which is in its fourth year with 1,900 students and 58 participating private schools.
The findings are likely to stoke debate about the merits of the country's first federally funded K-12 scholarship program and widen the political divide over vouchers, which Republicans favor as a form of school choice. The GAO undertook the study at the request of three Democrats, Sens. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
The controversial voucher program was passed by Congress in 2004 to give low-income families the option of using $7,500 toward private school tuition. The average D.C. applicant is a single parent who makes $17,000 a year and has four children.
Students in Ohio and Wisconsin are also taking part in similar programs. But in the District, the report says, instead of giving poor children access to better learning environments, program officials put children at risk by failing to certify whether all of the participating schools had the required operating permits.
In a random sample of 18 schools reviewed by the GAO, two lacked occupancy permits, and four lacked permits needed for buildings used for educational purposes. At least seven of the 18 schools were certified as child development centers but not as private schools. In one case, a school was operating in a space designed for a retail store, the report says.
The schools were largely allowed to self-report that they were in compliance with city regulations, the report says, increasing the possibility that students were being ill-served without proper oversight.
"Self-certification without review to verify that the certifications are factual increases the risk that federal funds intended to allow children from low-income families to attend private schools will result in some students attending schools that are not in compliance with the District law," the report says.
The Washington Scholarship Fund, which operates the program under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education, told GAO investigators that it conducted site visits at 42 schools, but the GAO could confirm a visit to only one school.
Some schools told fund officials that they had certain amenities, such as a gymnasium or an auditorium; the report says they did not. Parents might have been misled when they reviewed the list of participating schools and their programs, the report says.
Gregory M. Cork, president and chief executive of the fund, said it has no capacity to enforce whether private schools comply with D.C. laws.
"We're not a government oversight agency," Cork said. "We report the characteristics of schools as they report them to us. Occasionally, a school might fill in the wrong blank. What we do take seriously is to match our families with the schools they choose and the learning environments that are best for their children."
Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the report could be revised before it becomes final. She also said it "presents an incomplete picture" of the program.
D.C. State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist said in a statement that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has designated her office to assume oversight of the program. Gist said she will assign staffers to the task.
"We will aggressively move to ensure that our students are adequately served," Gist said in a statement.
Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, said yesterday that the administration is preparing a response to the draft report.
The report also says that the fund had high turnover and weak internal controls for handling the federal grant money. It attributed those issues to a rapid three-year expansion because of high parent demand.
Cork said yesterday that the nonprofit program has improved operations. One example cited was shifting from paper invoices to an electronic system.
A report in May from the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute showed that of 100 parents and students surveyed, most were satisfied with the program, and about 90 percent said they would remain at least another year.