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D.C. vouchers: What you need to know

Corrections: An early version of this post mistakenly used the word “unattended” for “unaccredited” and had some grammatical errors. 

Here are some things you should know about the D.C. school voucher program that House Majority leader John Boehner took on as a personal mission to save. According to this important investigation by my colleagues Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown:

  * Hundreds of  D.C. student who receive money from the congressionally created program attend unaccredited schools, including one school whose curriculum is based on a Bulgarian psychotherapist’s philosophy and one Nation of Islam school.

* Though public dollars are used to pay for the tuition at these private schools, public officials have no say in what or how these institutions’ students are taught. The story says: “The director of the nonprofit organization that manages the D.C. vouchers on behalf of the federal government calls quality control ‘a blind spot.’ ”

* More than 90 percent of students at some of these schools receive tuition money from the voucher program.

* More than half of the 1,584 D.C. students now getting voucher money from the program attend Catholic schools. A few go to elite private schools such as Sidwell Friends, where President Obama’s daughters attend and where Chelsea Clinton went to school.

 There’s a lot more that you should read, here.

Formally named the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the voucher system was created by Congress and implemented in 2004 as a cornerstone of the “school choice” movement. More than 5,000 D.C. students have received scholarship money since then. Applicants must live in the city and either receive food stamps or earn about $42,600 for a family of four.  Winners in the lottery can receive up to $8,136 to attend participating private elementary and middle schools and up to $12,205  for participating private high schools.

Has the program helped these students academically?

A five-year study published in 2010 looked at educational outcomes of 2,300 students who applied for the vouchers. The number who received money, determined by lottery, was 1,387 — though nearly 300 didn’t use the money. Another 921 students who applied didn’t get voucher money. The study concluded that there was no difference in standardized test scores in math and reading between the voucher students and those who applied but didn’t get voucher money.

For school reformers who have made standardized test scores the most important measure of student achievement, this, you would think, would be something of a problem. But instead they highlight another finding in the report: A larger percentage of students who got the voucher money graduated from high school than those students who applied for but didn’t get the voucher money. That’s a positive outcome for sure, but how big was the effect? Only about 500 of the voucher students reached their senior year in high school. Their rate of graduation was 12 percentage points higher than those kids who applied for but didn’t get voucher money. That’s good news, for sure.

But there was this from the report: Parents whose children received voucher money said they were more satisfied with the private school and felt the environment was safer, but students’ own reports on school condition didn’t change. In addition, the study showed that many students in the voucher program were less likely to have access to special needs services and counselors than the other students studied. It’s no surprise then, that students with physical and mental disabilities are underrepresented in the voucher program. All of this explains why a long list of education organizations are opposed to the voucher program.

Boehner and other congressional backers of the program were so obsessed with keeping the voucher program alive this year that they pushed the Obama administration — which opposes vouchers — to a deal on it as part of a broader budget compromise that ensured there would be no enrollment limit. The Obama administration says that public dollars shouldn’t be spent for private schools and noting that they are not a real solution to the troubles facing many public schools.

Voucher supporters have long insisted that these programs increase student achievement, but there is no real research to show that they have in the United States, according to this report by the Center on Education Policy.

The latest effort  to expand vouchers has resulted in scandalous headlines in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed the country’s largest voucher program in the country as part of a law that includes other reforms seen by critics as the privatization of public education. Some 450,000 students were eligible for vouchers, but only about 10,000 applied, with most of the slots given to Christian schools that didn’t appear to have the resources to absorb them. Many of the schools use curriculum that promotes Young Earth Creationism (which holds the belief that the universe is no older than 10,000 years old despite definitive scientific evidence that it is billions of years old).

And there was this: Jindal championed an “accountability” plan for private schools in the voucher program that doesn’t actually hold these schools accountable if they have fewer than 40 voucher students. Really. A school can allow its 39 voucher students to fail to show basic competency in reading, math, social studies and science and still keep receiving state funds — and, it turns out, most of the schools in the voucher program this coming year, it turns out, will be covered by this provision.

According to this story in the National Catholic Register, voucher programs have helped keep Catholic schools alive in a number of places around the country. The story starts:

At least partly thanks to a growing wave of states enacting school voucher programs, many Catholic schools are again seeing increased enrollments.


Indiana began offering vouchers in 2011, as did Douglas County, Colo., while Congress reinstated the District of Columbia’s voucher system that had been de-funded by the Obama administration. Now, nine states, the District of Columbia and a single school board in Colorado offer vouchers, while four other states offer educational savings accounts, scholarships or other aid. These plans cover 210,000 students across America, up sevenfold from 2000.

 That’s obviously good news for Catholic schools. But are public tax dollars best spent bolstering Catholic and other private schools that have no public accountability?


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · November 17, 2012

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