A majority of the D.C. Council is urging House Republicans to phase out the federal school voucher program, splitting with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser over the system that lets low-income families in the city use federal dollars to pay private school tuition.
A congressional committee is slated to take up legislation Wednesday to renew the D.C. voucher program.
The divide between the council and the mayor comes as city leaders struggle over how to deal with intervention into local affairs by congressional Republicans.
Bowser on Tuesday reaffirmed her support for the only federally funded voucher program, which gives money to 1,100 students each year to leave low-performing public schools for private schools.
In a letter sent Tuesday to House Republicans, the council majority argued that there is no evidence that private school vouchers have resulted in better academic outcomes for students and that the program amounts to an inappropriate use of tax dollars.
“We have serious concerns about using government funds to send our students to private schools that do not adhere to the same standards and accountability,” said the letter signed by eight of 13 council members. “We call on you to respect the wishes of the District’s elected officials on the quintessentially local matter of education.”
The council members also pointed out that public education in the District has improved markedly since Congress created the voucher program in 2004 and that parents can choose among traditional neighborhood schools, public charter schools or out-of-boundary schools through a city lottery.
The letter amounted to a reversal from a year ago, when eight council members joined Bowser to support a continuation of the voucher program.
Observers said that with Bowser fighting off congressional interference into city marijuana laws, gun control and other measures, the mayor saw little benefit to fighting the voucher program, which is a priority for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). The voucher program also brings in additional federal dollars for D.C. public schools and charter schools.
“It’s a delicate balance in the District that I think is a model for choice across the nation,” Bowser said.
But council member David Grosso, chairman of the council’s Education Committee, blasted the House bill filed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to continue the voucher program for another five years.
Grosso (I-At Large) called the bill an affront to the city’s improving public school system and a potential vehicle for President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate for school choice, to make good on a promise to expand private school vouchers, beginning in D.C.
A bill filed last year by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) would turn the District — where Congress has ultimate authority — into an entirely voucher-based district.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who hosted a town hall meeting last month that drew over 700 people opposed to congressional interference in local matters, urged D.C. residents Tuesday to call Chaffetz and other lawmakers to register their opposition to the voucher program.
“I don’t think vouchers work, and I don’t think it’s right to take public tax dollars and put them into private religious schools,” he said. “And I think everybody agrees that we should not be having Jason Chaffetz and House Republicans serve as the local school board.”
A Washington Post review found that hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront and a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence.
Along with Grosso and Allen, the letter was signed by council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large); Jack Evans (D-Ward 2); Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7); Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1); Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8),
Those who did not sign the letter were Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3); Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4); and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large).
With the exception of Robert White, all of those who did not sign on had expressed support a year ago for continuation of the program. In an interview, White said he supported a limited voucher program but would have serious concerns about expansion.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, or SOAR, as the voucher program is known, provides tuition support for about 1,100 students. Serving Our Children, the organization that administers the program, announced last week that it expects the program to expand by “hundreds of new students” for the 2017-2018 school year.
Michael Musante, director of government relations for FOCUS, which advocates for school choice, said that since 2004, SOAR has provided over $675 million to the District, split equally between public schools, charter schools and vouchers.
He said in an email that it was hard to fathom why “any Council member would put at risk a future $225 million dollars in federal funds over five years given to the District alone with little to no strings attached.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting delegate, has given conflicting guidance to her Democratic colleagues on the House Oversight Committee ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
Last week, she sent members a letter laying out a nuanced position on the bill. She opposes private school vouchers, she said, but would stop short of vigorously fighting the bill because it also contains funding for public schools and public charter schools that she supports.
Norton said the voucher program lacks civil rights protections and is “particularly unnecessary in D.C.,” where about half of students already attend charter schools and three-quarters attend out-of-boundary schools they have chosen.
“In light of the District government’s understandable concern about the potential loss of the public and charter school funding, which it has received for more than a decade, I will not offer any amendments to the bill, and will not ask for a recorded vote,” she wrote. “I respectfully request that you not offer amendments or ask for a recorded vote, either. If there is a recorded vote, however, I will vote ‘NO’.”
But on Tuesday, her office sent Democrats on the committee an email reversing her request that they refrain from offering amendments.