Sen. Durbin Urges More Oversight of D.C. Voucher Schools

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.)
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) (Handout - Getty Images)
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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Questions about where several hundred D.C. voucher students attended school last year were resolved Tuesday morning at a hearing on Capitol Hill, but a leading Senate Democrat said he planned to push for stricter oversight of private schools in the federally funded scholarship program for low-income families.

"The kids are accounted for," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said at a hearing of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. "We've got to demand the same standards" for voucher schools, he said, "as we do [for] our public and our charter schools."

Durbin said that if stricter oversight is instituted, he would support continuing the program, which handed out $12 million in scholarships last year, for students now enrolled.

Two weeks ago, Durbin asked why the Washington Scholarship Fund, which oversees the program, had declined to hand over a list of the number of voucher students who attend each school. When his aides called the schools and asked for data about enrollment last year, they came up more than 300 students short.

But several schools did not respond, and at least one apparently gave out numbers for this year, not last. Data supplied by the Washington Scholarship Fund last week appeared to help explain the discrepancy.

Durbin said questions remain. Noting that D.C. public charter schools and schools in the Archdiocese of Washington are required to be accredited or receiving accreditation, Durbin asked why the Washington Scholarship Fund didn't insist on the same standard.

The head of the fund, Gregory M. Cork, said he wasn't allowed to require accreditation under the law. But most of the participating schools were "excellent," he said, regardless of accreditation. He said a majority are accredited.

Private schools are not required to be accredited in the District, but the process provides third-party certification of a school's educational programs and finances.

The 2003 law that authorizes the program mandates that parents and students be provided "with the widest range of educational options." It also says the vouchers are designed to give low-income families in neighborhoods where schools need improvement the chance to send their children to "higher-performing schools."

At the hearing, Cork said he would support a change in the law to require accreditation.

"Personally, I think accreditation is a great idea going forward," he said. Cork added that he hoped any change would be made in a way that would give schools now unaccredited a chance to apply.

Two schools that together took in 141 of the program's 1,716 students last year are no longer part of the voucher program, Cork said at the hearing. Ambassador Baptist Church Christian School closed for financial reasons, and the Academy for Ideal Education has lost its certificate of occupancy, he said. Having a certificate of occupancy is one of the requirements schools must meet to participate in the program.

Neither school responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

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