A House committee advanced a bill Friday to renew D.C.’s federally funded vouchers program — the only one like it in the country — raising larger questions about whether the federal government should promote the use of tax dollars for private schools.
The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act, known as SOAR, gives federal dollars to low-income D.C. students who want to transfer from struggling public schools to a private school. The program, created by Congress in 2004, also provides additional federal dollars to traditional public schools and public charter schools in the District.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform debated the bill Wednesday and voted Friday to extend the program for five more years. The legislation will next go to the full House for a vote.
The bill represents the first fight over vouchers to play out on a national stage since President Trump, a proponent of education alternatives he calls “school choice,” won the election.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a champion of private school vouchers, and Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion to help states expand such programs.
The American Federation for Children, an advocacy group founded by DeVos, called the bill “an educational lifeline” for low-income D.C. families and said Friday’s vote sends a message that lawmakers consider the program a success.
The Oversight Committee took up the bill, sponsored by Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), after debating another Chaffetz proposal that would encourage federal agencies to move out of the nation’s capital.
Chaffetz said vouchers allows low-income students to “attend private schools that might otherwise be beyond their parents’ financial means.”
“The District of Columbia school system has consistently had a host of challenges and certainly rankings near the bottom in terms of its performance,” he said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative, argued that parents in the city already have “robust” choices, pointing out that half of public school students attend charter schools that are independent from D.C. Public Schools, while 75 percent of DCPS students attend schools that are outside their neighborhoods and chosen by their parents through a city lottery.
Norton said she opposes vouchers, noting there was no evidence that the program resulted in better academic outcomes for students.
“The D.C. voucher program has failed its central purpose: It has not improved academic achievement, as measured by math and reading tests, and that ought to be the test. The program is therefore patently unnecessary,” she said.
But she said the 1,154 students in the program should be allowed to continue until they graduate from high school.
Democrats offered amendments to require private school voucher programs to obey civil rights laws that protect LGBT students and those with disabilities. The proposed changes failed along party lines in the GOP-controlled committee.
D.C. officials have struggled with how to respond to the bill; while they generally oppose using federal dollars for private schools, they do not want to lose the public and charter school funding tied to the voucher program.
A majority of the D.C. Council urged House Republicans to phase out the federal school voucher program, even though Mayor Muriel E. Bowser supports it.
“Once the money is appropriated for this program, then we’ll see what kind of beer muscles the City Council has because they don’t have to accept the money,” Chaffetz said.
Norton explained that federal dollars for the program are distributed by the U.S. Department of Education via a local nonprofit group, so “the council could not reject the money.”
Unions representing teachers said vouchers hurt public schools because they funnel scarce tax dollars to private institutions that are unaccountable.
“They may discriminate against a student based on his or her gender, disability, religion, economic background, national origin, academic record, English language ability, or disciplinary history,” Marc Egan, director of government relations at the National Education Association, said in a letter.
A Washington Post review found that most students enrolled in the voucher program attend Catholic schools but hundreds 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. The Nation of Islam school recently left the program, said Michael Musante, director of government relations for FOCUS, a voucher and charter school advocacy group.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who represents parts of Fairfax County, and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a freshman from Montgomery County, defended the District. Connolly offered an amendment to impose stricter evaluation standards, which was defeated by Republicans.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said that although Democrats perceive the bill’s nondiscrimination clause as inadequate, students would be safeguarded by the civil rights protections granted by D.C. law.
That prompted Norton to interject: “These are private schools. So the District law does not cover private schools.”
The program was a priority for former House speaker John A. Boehner and continues to be important to his successor, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Both Boehner and Ryan are products of Catholic schools, although Ryan attended a public high school. Ryan sends his three children to Catholic school.
Emma Brown contributed to this report. This story has been updated.