The District is home to the nation’s only federally funded school voucher program, and for the past eight years, advocates for the program have been on defense, fighting to keep it alive under a president who opposes the notion of using taxpayer dollars to pay tuition at private and religious schools.
But then Donald Trump, voucher supporter, was elected president. Now advocates see an opportunity to go on offense, not just to maintain but to expand the D.C. program, which pays for about 1,500 low-income children to attend private and parochial schools.
Trump’s pick for education secretary, announced Wednesday, cemented the notion that he intends to make good on his campaign-trail promise of using federal dollars to expand voucher programs, including the one in the District. Trump’s nominee, Michigan billionaire and conservative activist Betsy DeVos, has quietly helped introduce vouchers in many states nationwide, spending millions of dollars to support candidates who agree with her and to unseat those who do not.
“School choice is definitely on the agenda for the next administration,” Robert Enlow, president and chief executive of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based organization that lobbies for vouchers nationwide, said earlier this month, before Trump confirmed DeVos as his pick. “We’re really excited about that.”
Enlow said he hopes one of Trump’s first moves as president will be to push for the reauthorization and expansion of the D.C. voucher program to qualify not just low-income students, but all children in the city. He argues that all parents should have the opportunity to choose which school their children attend.
Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), chair of the Congressional School Choice Caucus, said his first priority is ensuring that there are enough vouchers to meet demand among low-income families. But he said he supports the idea of offering vouchers to all families, including affluent ones with children who already attend elite private schools.
“Listen, every single one of those parents is a taxpayer,” Messer said. “So from my perspective, I’m open to broad proposals.”
DeVos referred all questions to the Trump transition team, which did not respond to an interview request. On her website Wednesday, DeVos declined to discuss her specific policy proposals.
“I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world,” DeVos wrote. “However, out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin their confirmation process.”
The prospect of an expanded voucher program is not a welcome one among the District’s elected officials, who chafe as Congress — where the District has no vote — passes laws that shape the landscape of city education. Many also are ideologically opposed and worry that an expanded voucher program could threaten the progress and growth of the city’s traditional public and public charter schools.
“I’m 100 percent opposed to public dollars going to private schools like this,” said D.C. Council Member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has spoken forcefully against the voucher program for years. “I’m a strong, strong supporter of the separation of church and state, and I just feel like as we move into a Trump administration, we have to double down on that effort.”
Public school advocates are similarly alarmed at the prospect of an expansion of D.C. vouchers, which are part of the so-called “three-legged stool” of education in the city: vouchers, traditional public schools and growing charter schools, which now comprise nearly half the city’s public school students.
District parent Natalie Hopkinson said the net effect of the expanding “school choice” movement has been a system in which the only areas of the city that have quality neighborhood schools are those dominated by wealthy white residents.
A voucher expansion “would complete the process of unleashing D.C. students, the majority of whom are black or brown, to the mercy of the private sector, where they are discriminated against in admission, grading, disciplinary policies and expulsions with no accountability or oversight,” Hopkinson said.
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 wholeheartedly rebuke the legislation without risking necessary funding for public schools.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and eight of 13 council members sent Congress a letter of support for the voucher program earlier this year, citing the importance of the linked funding for public schools.
Grosso said he believes that if the bargain remains in place — accept the voucher program in exchange for money for public schools — his colleagues in D.C. government will go along, even if it means more taxpayer dollars for private schools.
Asked how the Bowser administration would react to an effort to expand the city’s voucher program, Jennifer Niles, the deputy mayor for education, said the city already has a “really robust choice system here, and we’ve seen tremendous growth.”
A spokesman for Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting delegate to Congress and a fierce opponent of the voucher program, pointed out that efforts to create a national voucherlike program failed on the floor of the GOP-led House and Senate during last year’s passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Currently, the vouchers are worth up to $8,452 for elementary and middle school students and up to $12,679 for high school students. Families are able to take that money to private or parochial school to cover all or part of tuition.
Some parents say the voucher program has saved their children from failing schools, offering them a path to a stronger education and more opportunities.
“My daughter has massive potential and a love for learning that my income could not accommodate,” parent Seferash Teferra told a House committee last year. Teferra’s daughter attends Sidwell Friends, the elite Quaker school where President Obama sent his daughters. “I cannot believe there are some people who do not support this program.”
But it’s unusual for voucher recipients to attend a school such as Sidwell, according to a 2012 investigation by The Washington Post. At the time, just one voucher student attended Sidwell; more than half of voucher recipients attended Catholic schools, and many attended schools where almost all students were voucher recipients, suggesting that the schools wouldn’t exist without the federally funded program.
One of those schools was run out of a soot-stained storefront on Georgia Avenue; another unaccredited school was supported by the Nation of Islam and was run out of a rowhouse in Deanwood where the bathroom had a floor blackened with dirt, a sink coated in grime and a bathtub filled with paint cans and cleaning supplies.
A 2010 report from the Education Department that examined the D.C. program found that graduation rates were higher among voucher recipients than public school students, according to reports from parents. But there was no conclusive evidence the vouchers improved student achievement.