A majority of the D.C. Council urged Congress on Thursday to end the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the only federally funded private school voucher program.
In a letter to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, eight members of the D.C. Council said they want federal dollars directed to public schools, not private ones.
Earlier this week, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a bill to reauthorize the D.C. voucher program for an additional five years. Boehner, a product of Catholic schools, is the program’s biggest cheerleader in Congress. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators filed a companion bill to extend the program through 2025.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a statement that private school vouchers are needed because the D.C. public school system, “often cited as one of the worst in the country, is absolutely failing these children.” He was joined by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.)
But the council members disagree.
In their letter to Chaffetz, they argued that the city’s educational landscape has improved dramatically since the voucher program was started in 2004, with a strong public charter system that serves as an alternative to traditional schools, improved district schools and lots of choice for parents.
“Families can choose from an array of educational institutions based on publicly available performance metrics, both within the D.C. Public Schools system and among the myriad public charter schools,” the council members wrote. “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the progress of D.C. Public Schools ‘remarkable’ while the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has ranked the District’s charter sector as the best in the country.”
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the D.C. voucher program has resulted in academic gains for students, they wrote.
And District residents are tired of members of Congress treating the city as “their own personal petri dish” to experiment with public policy, the letter said.
“It is insulting to our constituents, who vote for us but not for any voting member of Congress, that some of your colleagues push their personal agendas on D.C. in a way that they never could in their home states,” it said.
The letter was drafted by Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, and signed by members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
A spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) evaded a question about whether Bowser supports the private school voucher program. Bowser’s predecessor, Vincent C. Gray (D), opposed vouchers.
“We support federal funding that benefits District residents,” said Michael Czin, Bowser’s spokesman. “The District has been a model for education reform, and the mayor is committed to building on our successes.”
The council members argued that private schools that participate in the voucher program take tax dollars without the accountability and transparency required of public schools.
At a time when public schools face increasing demands and scrutiny, the private schools that receive millions of federal voucher dollars are subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate experiences, a Washington Post investigation found.
Some of these schools are heavily dependent on tax dollars, with more than 90 percent of their students paying with federal vouchers. In 2014-2015, the vouchers paid up to $12,572 for high school and up to $8,381 for elementary school.
Yet the government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information, relying mostly on school marketing.
A 2013 Government Accountability Office report found that the voucher program was poorly managed.
Republicans in Congress established the D.C. voucher program to demonstrate the school-choice concepts that the party has been espousing since the 1950s. The Obama administration is opposed to the program and has tried unsuccessfully to shut it down.
In the 2014-2015 school year, 1,442 students used the vouchers to pay tuition at 47 private schools in the District. The vast majority — 80 percent — are religious schools.
Supporters of the program say it is successful because 90 percent of voucher students graduate from high school, and 88 percent of the Class of 2015 enrolled in some kind of higher education. In surveys, parents report great satisfaction.