House Republicans approved a bill Wednesday to extend the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded, private school voucher program for K-12 students, through 2021.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) authored the bill, which for the first time would require that some students with vouchers take the same standardized tests in math and reading administered to public school students in the District. The change would allow the federal government to compare their academic performance with that of other students.
The bill — which passed 240 to 191, with eight Republicans voting against it and two Democrats voting for it — also would open the program to low-income students already in private schools. But it also would add another new requirement: Participating private schools would have to be accredited within six years.
Boehner, a product of Catholic schools, is the program’s biggest cheerleader in Congress. A companion bill is pending in the Senate.
“While it’s my name on the bill, the best champions for this program are some of the most fearless kids you’ve ever seen,” Boehner said, choking up on the House floor. “Those of us who work here, make a good living — we owe something to the kids in this town. Help these kids get over the mountain.”
The Obama administration and House Democrats are opposed to the legislation, as is a majority of the D.C. Council, which has urged Congress to spend federal dollars on public, not private, schools in the city.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Republicans were foisting vouchers on the District even though a bill to create a national program recently failed.
“Just three months ago, both the House and Senate defeated several national private school voucher amendments on the floor,” Norton said. “No wonder. Since 1970, every referendum to establish state-funded vouchers or tuition tax credits has failed by large margins. So the Congress rejects private school vouchers for their children, but wants to impose vouchers on ours.”
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 — were religious schools.
The bill authorizes $60 million annually, to be split evenly between the voucher program, public charter schools and traditional public schools in the District.
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 has tried unsuccessfully to shut it down, saying that current voucher holders should be allowed to finish their education but that new vouchers should not be distributed.
Supporters of the program point to data showing that 90 percent of voucher students graduate from high school and that 88 percent of the Class of 2015 enrolled in some kind of higher education. In surveys, parents report great satisfaction.
But to date, federal studies have found that the program does not result in statistically significant academic gains for students.
And at a time when public schools face increasing scrutiny, the private schools that have received millions of federal voucher dollars have been subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate experiences, according to a 2012 Washington Post investigation. A Government Accountability Office report the following year found that the voucher program was poorly managed.
A spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has declined to say whether she supports the bill.
Opponents of D.C. vouchers say the city’s educational landscape has improved dramatically since the voucher program began in 2004, with a strong public charter system that educates nearly half of public school students in the city, improved traditional schools and choice for parents.
The choice system in the District means that just 25 percent of students attend their neighborhood schools: The majority travel to public charter schools or traditional schools they can access through a city lottery.
Some voucher 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.
Norton unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to shut down “voucher mills” and require that private schools cannot have more than 50 percent of students paying with vouchers. She also failed to get support for a more rigorous evaluation of the academic outcomes of the voucher program.