Yonathan Dawit studies math at Bridges Academy, a private D.C. school where the majority of students get federally funded vouchers to pay tuition. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Congress dedicates $15 million a year to a program that helps low-income D.C. students pay tuition at private schools, but it’s impossible for taxpayers to find out where their money goes: The administrator of the D.C. voucher program refuses to say how many students attend each school or how many public dollars they receive.

It’s also not clear how students are performing in each school. When Congress created the program in 2004, it did not require individual private schools to disclose anything about student performance. And private schools can continue receiving voucher dollars no matter how poorly their students fare.

President Trump has said the D.C. voucher program is “what winning for young children and kids from all over the country looks like,” and he has freed up millions of dollars in federal funds to expand it, allowing nearly triple the number of students to participate by next school year.

He and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have also pledged to expand private-school choice programs across the country, many of which now make it difficult to track how tax dollars are spent and whether they’re improving student achievement.

For DeVos, who has spent three decades supporting the expansion of state-level voucher programs, it’s more important for parents to have choices than it is for the public to have data.

“Parents know — or can figure out — what learning environment is best for their child, and we must give them the right to choose where that may be,” DeVos said in May. Every school receiving public money should be held accountable, she said, “but they should be directly accountable to parents and communities, not to Washington, D.C., bureaucrats.”

Of the ten largest private-school choice programs in the nation, at least three do not publish information about how many students are served at each school or how much money those schools receive, according to a Washington Post review.

Seven of the programs either don’t require that voucher students take standardized tests to make it possible to compare their performance with that of peers at public schools, or, if they do, they do not require schools to make those scores public.

And at least eight have no minimum performance requirements, meaning that a school can do exceedingly poorly and continue to receive taxpayer funds.

Asked to comment on whether DeVos views the lack of public information as a problem, Liz Hill, her spokeswoman, wrote that parents don’t need “more data sets, they need more options.”

“A child’s progress — or lack thereof — is fully transparent to his or her parents,” Hill said. “When a robust choice program exists and students are no longer stuck in a mandated system, the ultimate accountability for schools is whether or not parents choose to send their children there.”

The view that parents can hold schools accountable for results is a striking departure from the federal government’s approach over the past 15 years, which — under presidents of both parties — has sought to improve public schools by publicizing test scores and forcing change at those with persistently low achievement.

DeVos has declared that approach a failure for too many struggling students, and her public argument in favor of alternatives to traditional public schools centers on the experiences of individual students whose lives were changed by the opportunity to attend the school of their choice.

Quienten Bennett is headed to the U.S. Naval Academy after graduating from St. John’s College High School with help from the District’s voucher program. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

There is no question that some students have benefited tremendously from the D.C. voucher program, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Quienten Bennett, a recent graduate of the District’s St. John’s College High, turned down the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and Georgetown University to attend the U.S. Naval Academy — a school that admits just nine percent of applicants — in the fall.

His mother, Vernell Bennett, is a single parent who lives in what she described as “the bad part” of Southeast Washington. She said none of her son’s prestigious college options would have been available to him if not for the voucher that allowed him to attend St. John’s, where tuition tops $18,000 year.

Her two other children also received D.C. vouchers, graduated from private high schools and went on to well-regarded colleges. “The Opportunity Scholarship has given three of my kids the opportunity to not be a statistic,” Bennett said. “It introduced them to another world.”

But critics of the D.C. voucher program — the only one funded by the federal government — say there’s no way to know whether the Bennetts’ experience is the norm or the exception.

D.C.’s charter experiment

A Republican-led Congress created the District’s program in 2004, and although it is small — serving only 1,100 students this year — it has attracted attention over the years as an experiment in school choice conducted in the nation’s capital.

It currently provides poor children with scholarships of up to $8,452 to attend a private elementary or middle school and up to $12,679 for high school.

The program has undoubtedly allowed some students an escape from troubled neighborhood schools. But there have long been questions about whether oversight of the program is adequate.

Private schools receiving D.C. voucher dollars must become accredited by 2021, but they otherwise face few requirements beyond showing that they are in good financial standing and comply with basic health and safety laws.

Schools must also administer nationally standardized math and reading tests to voucher students each year, and they must release those scores to parents and to the Education Department to be used in evaluations of the program.

But they do not report test results publicly, as public schools are required to, which makes it impossible for policymakers — not to mention prospective students and their families — to compare how voucher students fare at different schools.

On the whole, voucher recipients performed worse on standardized tests a year after transferring into private schools than their peers who stayed in public school did, according to a federal study published in April. Previous studies found that voucher recipients graduate from high school at far higher rates than their public-school counterparts.

Voucher advocates emphasize that parents care far less about test scores than education policy wonks do and that they should be trusted to choose schools that work well for their children.

“Something magical happens when parents feel they have the power to decide where their kids go to school and they actually shop around,” said Kevin Chavous, a former D.C. council member who lobbied Congress for the voucher program. For families whose income is less than $21,000 a year, the chance to exercise control in education is “a landmark thing in urban America,” he said.

Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children — an advocacy group DeVos founded and chaired before becoming education secretary — said tax dollars often flow to public schools that consistently fail students.

“While we continue to advocate for policies that create strong programs and improve existing ones, our opponents in the education establishment and the self-interested unions are content to sit on their hands and let chronically languishing schools with dismal track records of performance continue to shuffle students through the doors with no other options.”

Relying on vouchers

While spending by public schools in D.C. and elsewhere is public information, it is not clear where the voucher money goes.

Congress sends about $15 million each year to a nonprofit administrator of the program that, in turn, gives scholarships to District children for use at private schools. The nonprofit, Serving Our Children, refused a request for data on the number of students who attend each school and the number of voucher dollars that flow to each school.

Lawyers advised against releasing such information to avoid violating a clause in the law that prohibits the disclosure of “personally identifiable information,” according to Rachel Sotsky, executive director of the organization.

Students study in two classrooms at Bridges Academy, in Northwest Washington. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Of the 47 private schools that participate in the program, 15 responded to Washington Post inquiries about the number of voucher students they serve. That limited information shows that although some of Washington’s elite private schools enroll just a few students, or none at all, others — many of them small operations run out of churches or storefronts — rely heavily on voucher dollars.

Beauvoir, an elementary school on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral where tuition tops $35,000, enrolled no voucher students in 2017, school officials said. Sidwell Friends, famous for educating the children of presidents, including Barack Obama, has enrolled one or two voucher recipients each year.

But at the Academy for Ideal Education — which offers “stress free, holistic learning” that helps students integrate the right and left hemispheres of their brains, according to its website — 27 of 30 students are on vouchers, according to a receptionist at the school, housed in a low-slung brick building alongside a church in Northeast Washington. The owner, Paulette Jones-Bell Imaan, refused to speak to a reporter.

Thirty-nine of 45 students — 87 percent — of students at Academia de la Recta Porta International Christian Day School, a small school run out of a storefront along Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington, are on vouchers, according to Annette Miles, who runs the school. Eighty-one percent of students at Calvary Christian Academy, in a church in Brentwood, pay tuition with vouchers.

All eight of Jamie Youngblood’s children attend or attended Bridges Academy, a K-8 school in Brightwood where 69 percent of students use vouchers.

Bridges prepared her children for high school in a way Youngblood doubted her neighborhood school in Southeast would have done, she said. It offers small classes and a well-rounded set of experiences, from an etiquette class where her sons learned to tie a necktie to class trips to places as diverse as Bermuda, Seattle and Tennessee.

The voucher program, she said, “is one of the best things they’ve done for our kids’ education.”

Critics also say some students with special needs have a hard time using vouchers. Private-school profiles published by Serving Our Children, the voucher administrator, show that one in five do not serve students with learning disabilities; half don’t serve students with physical disabilities; and two-thirds don’t serve students learning English as a second language.

Vouchers provide schools with fewer dollars per child, on average, than public school funding does for its students. Abigail Smith, who served as deputy mayor for education under Mayor Vincent Gray, said she’s concerned that schools that rely heavily on vouchers therefore must cut corners and pay low teacher salaries or refuse to serve children with the most intensive needs.

The lack of transparency means there is no way to know which schools rely heavily on vouchers, what those schools offer or how their students fare, Smith said.

“If there’s no visibility into it, you just can’t know,” she said. “The lack of information really concerns me.”

Lillette Campbell founded Bridges Academy along Georgia Avenue 37 years ago. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

This article was produced in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, where McLaren is a student.