D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had just a few minutes to speak to hundreds of thousands of people at the Women’s March on Washington. The massive audience was mostly protesting against President Trump during his first full day in office, and Bowser hinted at how she might deal with the new administration’s policies.
The mayor said she would stand up for women’s reproductive rights and for addressing climate change, and before she launched the crowd into a chant of “leave us alone,” she gave a nod to the city’s schools: “And we have to stand up for public education, because that’s what our kids need.”
The nation’s capital has a relationship with the federal government unlike any other jurisdiction in the United States. Residents of the city pay local taxes, but Congress has the power to tell the city how to spend its money; elected officials in Congress have often used this power to push their partisan policies, sometimes in opposition to the city’s liberal laws. That has been true with abortion and guns, and as Bowser noted, education.
With a new president — and his polarizing pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos — pushing for nontraditional school choice policies, there’s a possibility that a Republican-controlled Congress could have an effect on D.C. schools. City leaders are vowing to protect them from that impact.
“My fear in this arena is that they will continue to give back to the states the responsibility of education in every scenario except for the District of Columbia,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the council’s education committee. A new federal education law took power from Washington and shifted it to the states, and DeVos has indicated a strong desire to give states and localities more control.
Congress and the new federal administration probably will pursue an expansion of school choice policies, such as vouchers for private and parochial schools in the District, according to Lindsey Burke, the director of education policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Such a move would make the District — already a darling of choice advocates because of its charter sector, which educates nearly half of the public school students in the city — even more choice-heavy, probably with vouchers that could go to students other than just those from low-income families. The city’s current voucher program allows low-income families to take taxpayer dollars to the private schools of their choosing.
“Expanding the voucher system or expanding choice through an education voucher system would be great,” Burke said. “D.C. is under the jurisdiction of Congress at the end of the day. There are only a handful of measures at a federal level advancing school choice, and since D.C. is a federal city, that unique relationship makes it appropriate.”
Millions of dollars in federal funding for local public schools are tied to the voucher program, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, making it difficult for key city leaders to fully rebuke the legislation without risking necessary funding for public schools. The program gives millions of dollars each year to the traditional public school system, charter schools and toward vouchers. Burke said it is possible that Congress could redistribute the money so that more goes to vouchers and less to the other sectors.
Bowser has met with the president and Republican members of Congress and said she has emphasized that the District already has a robust array of school choice, and she thinks it works. She likes the three-pronged approach — with federal funds going to the traditional public school system, charter schools and vouchers — and hopes it remains that way.
But Jennifer Budoff, the D.C. Council budget director, said that Congress has wide latitude in its funding of education in the District, including the ability to make immediate changes to the city’s fiscal budget.
“Historically, when it comes to education, they have only done stuff that is additive, but they have the power to do whatever they want,” Budoff said.
D.C. Public Schools receives $906 million in annual funding, with $762 million coming from local coffers. Charter schools receive $724 million in local funding.
The Heritage Foundation and DeVos are advocates of education spending accounts, which allow qualifying families to use public funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online education and other services. Nevada and a few other jurisdictions have passed laws to enact such accounts.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) introduced legislation last year that would have required the District to set up education savings accounts and give local taxpayer dollars to people who want to send their children to private schools. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and local leaders assailed the legislation, and it didn’t pass.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced legislation last week that would devote more federal funding to voucher programs for children to attend the private schools and, in some cases, the public schools of their choice. The legislation would, in part, expand eligibility for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, by allowing low-income D.C. students who currently attend a private school to qualify.
D.C. Public Schools is pouring money into bolstering its neighborhood schools, and allocating more money to vouchers and less to traditional public schools could compromise the efforts. Bowser said she left her meeting with Trump thinking that he had a grasp of the D.C. school system. She said he had just met with former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who had been rumored to be a potential nominee for education secretary.
“He seemed to know about D.C. schools,” Bowser said. “He is familiar with how we’ve been able to innovate.”
Grosso said that he hopes DeVos won’t win approval in the Senate, and he is pushing on his social media accounts and other public platforms for her rejection. He said he hopes the next education secretary learns from what has and hasn’t worked in D.C. education, pointing to studies that show students who receive vouchers and go to private schools are not achieving at a higher level than those who don’t.
A Washington Post investigation in 2012 found that quality controls for schools accepting vouchers in the District were lacking. Hundreds of D.C. students were using their voucher dollars to attend schools that were unaccredited or were in unconventional settings, such as a family-run kindergarten-through-12th-grade school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted residence in the Deanwood area, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.
“It is considered a guinea pig approach to D.C., but they never stop to learn from this experiment,” Grosso said. “Vouchers don’t work in D.C.”