Excerpt from voices.washingtonpost.com/answersheet

A different kind of school bullying problem in the D.C. voucher-program battle

Sens. Susan Collins, far left, and Joseph Lieberman meet with D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and Mayor Vincent Gray before a hearing on education.
Sens. Susan Collins, far left, and Joseph Lieberman meet with D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and Mayor Vincent Gray before a hearing on education. (Douglas Graham)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011

U.S. legislators have some nerve telling the District government that Congress will probably cut funding for the city's public schools if D.C. officials don't revive a federal voucher program.

The issue in this case isn't whether you support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The issue is that such threats from federal lawmakers make a mockery out of thoughtful school reform and policymaking, not to mention the right of District residents to govern themselves.

The $14 million program was created in 2004 by a Republican-led Congress. It provides $7,500 annual vouchers to low-income families to send their children to private school. The program - which has served more than 3,700 students, most of them black or Hispanic - lost favor under the Obama administration, which supports public charter schools. In 2009, the program stopped accepting new students.

A 2010 report by the Education Department, the final evaluation of the voucher program ordered by Congress, said, "There is no conclusive evidence that the [program] affected student achievement." In this case, student achievement meant standardized test scores, which isn't real achievement.

Supporters of the voucher program say that they offer low-income families a way to provide a better education for their children in a city with long-troubled public schools. Critics of vouchers say voucher programs take valuable resources from public schools and provide little accountability or oversight.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) spoke sternly at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, saying that Congress probably will cut funding for city schools if efforts to revive the program aren't successful this year.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) testified at the hearing that he was opposed to the voucher program, that Congress has no business intruding on the city's local affairs, and that city parents already have educational choices, including dozens of public charter schools and traditional schools that he said are being improved.

Still he was told that the city could lose as much as $60 million in federal funding for education if he didn't do what the senators wanted.

This reflects the thoughtless, piecemeal way that this country makes school funding decisions. School budgets go up and down annually based on politics with no thought to the damage done to educational programs. No district can make sustained improvements without knowing from year to year that it will have sufficient resources.

Sure, $60 million is a lot for the city to lose. But it would be a shame if Gray changed his mind on vouchers under threat. That could be more costly to the city's independence in the long run.

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