The Washington Post

Why private school vouchers aren’t enough

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 on 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 requirements to report publicly how well their students are doing. Some of those schools have dubious curriculums and inadequate facilities. At least eight of the 52 schools with voucher students are not accredited.

Paulette Jones-Imaan poses for a portrait photograph inside the cafeteria of the Academy for Ideal Education. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The Academy for Ideal Education does not have to reveal its results on the nationally standardized test that 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, admitted to 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 exposed by Layton and Brown is disturbing, but 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. Good-bye 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 watch the money rolling in. Teachers don’t need credentials, just four-year college degrees. Schools don’t have to publish their test results, or answer questions from nasty 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.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.


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