The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Report slams D.C.’s federally funded school voucher program

More trouble has cropped up for the D.C. school voucher program, the only federally funded program in the country that sends children to private school using public money to pay the tuition.

A new U.S. General Accountability Office report says that  the local agency that administers the program — which has used $152 million in federal funds since 2004 for more than 5,000 students from low-income families — lacks the “financial systems, controls, policies, and procedures” to ensure that federal funds are being spent legally. It also says the U.S. Education Department has not exercised its oversight responsibilities well enough.

Created by a Republican-led Congress in 2004, the  D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program has been kept alive by Republican leaders in Congress who have ignored every report of mismanagement of the program, as well as opposition from the Obama administration. Last year, legislators even threatened to cut funding to D.C. public schools if the voucher program was shut down.

(If you are wondering why Congress is involved in local D.C. school affairs, it is because it has the power to tell the District what to do in ways it can’t do for the 50 states, and it has used the nation’s capital as its own laboratory for education experiments. Hence, the District has the only federally funded school voucher program.)

A government report in 2007 found that some students in the program were attending private schools that had unsuitable learning environments and teachers without bachelor’s degrees.

2010 report by the Education Department found that “there is no conclusive evidence that the [the program] affected student achievement” — a reference to standardized test scores, which is the major measure of student progress in school reform today. That report found that a larger percentage of students who got the voucher money graduated from high school than did students who applied for, but didn’t get, the voucher money, although more than half that did get it never made it to 12th grade.

In 2010, a different agency took over the administration of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program, but, alas, problems continued.

Last year, my colleagues Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown found in a review of the voucher program that:

Hundreds of students use their voucher dollars to attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence, and a school built around the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.
At a time when public schools face increasing demands for accountability and transparency, the 52 D.C. private schools that receive millions of federal voucher dollars are subject to few quality controls and offer widely disparate experiences, The Post found.
Some of these schools are heavily dependent on tax dollars, with more than 90 percent of their students paying with federal vouchers. Yet the government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information, relying mostly on marketing from the schools.

None of that fazed the program’s supporters, despite opposition from the Obama administration, which rejects the use of public money for private-school tuition. The administration tried to eliminate funding for the voucher program but Republicans in Congress led by House Speaker John Boehner linked its continuation and expansion to a broader budget deal that the White House accepted in June 2012. Many of the scholarship recipients attend Catholic schools, for which Boehner has a soft spot.

And now, Layton writes in this story about new deficiencies in the program. Not only is the  nonprofit D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. failing to administer the program well, the U.S. Education Department, which has oversight over the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program, has provided only limited monitoring of the trust corporation as it administered the program.

Here’s an excerpt from the newly released report explaining what the GAO investigators  discovered:

What the GAO Found

The DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation (the Trust) provides information to prospective and current families of children participating in the District of Columbia (the District) Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) through a variety of outreach activities. To reach prospective OSP families, the Trust advertises through print, radio, and bus ads, as well as in newspapers and flyers posted in neighborhood libraries, recreation centers, and local government service centers. However, the Trust provides incomplete and untimely information about participating schools to OSP families. The participating school directory, which is published by the Trust, lacks key information about tuition, fees, and accreditation. The Trust published the directory 9 months after the start of the 2012-13 school year, too late to assist families in selecting a school for that year. Without such information, parents cannot make fully informed school choices. Additionally, the Trust awarded scholarships to students several months after many schools completed their admissions and enrollment processes, limiting the amount of time and choice in selecting schools. Most families GAO spoke with were generally happy with OSP but some were concerned about the availability of program information.
The Trust’s internal controls do not ensure effective implementation and oversight of OSP. Adequate policies and procedures can provide reasonable assurance of effective, efficient operations, reliable financial reporting, and compliance with applicable laws. However, the Trust’s policies and procedures do not include a process for verifying eligibility information that schools self-report. As a result, the Trust cannot ensure that schools are eligible to participate in the program and, therefore, risks providing federal dollars to students to attend schools that do not meet standards required by law. Furthermore, the Trust’s database is not well structured and hampers the effectiveness of program implementation. For example, the Trust lacks written documentation for the database, and staff must rely on institutional memory to ensure processes such as data entry are conducted properly, which could contribute to errors in the database. As required by law, the Trust groups eligible applicants into three priority categories by which scholarships are then awarded by lottery; however, weaknesses in the database’s structure puts into question the Trust’s ability to provide accurate priority categories. Additionally, the Trust has not submitted its mandatory financial reports on time, despite a legal requirement that these reports be filed within 9 months of the end of the entity’s fiscal year. The Trust’s fiscal year 2010 financial report was almost 2 years late, and the Trust’s fiscal year 2011 and 2012 reports had not yet been submitted as of August 2013. In August 2013, the Trust also made amendments to its policies and procedures in three areas GAO identified. However, these amendments do not address all weaknesses identified in this report, and have not yet been fully implemented.
The Department of Education (Education) has provided limited assistance to the Trust in certain areas outlined in the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the District and in the cooperative agreement with the Trust. Specifically, Education is responsible for helping the Trust make improvements to its financial system, enhance its site visit policies and procedures, and improve the accuracy of information provided to parents. Trust officials acknowledged that Education has provided general assistance regarding administrative and operational functions, but it has not assisted with specific improvements in these areas. Although the MOU is a written agreement between Education and the District, it holds the Trust, as the grantee, responsible for notifying District agencies to conduct required building, zoning, health, and safety inspections of participating schools—a requirement that is not detailed in the cooperative agreement signed by Education and the Trust—but would assist the Trust in providing continued oversight of schools participating in OSP. As a result, Trust officials were not acutely aware of this responsibility, and required inspections were not being conducted in the manner described in the MOU between Education and the District.

Layton’s story quotes Ed Davies, the trust’s executive director, as saying that the program “needs a major overhaul” and that his agency inherited numerous problems when it took control in 2010 from the Washington Scholarship Fund. Last year, he was quoted in the Layton-Brown story as saying that quality control was “a blind spot” but that his organization didn’t have the authority to do anything differently.

Layton’s story also quotes Nadya Chinoy Dabby of the Education Department as rejecting the GAO’s contention that the department did not extend enough technical help to Davies’s nonprofit. Layton’s story says:

When Congress created the voucher program, it required that the schools be financially stable and sustainable. A school entirely dependent on the voucher program for income, for example, likely would not meet that standard. The trust lacks a policy detailing how to respond to a school that does not meet federal requirements, the GAO said. In her response, Dabby of the Education Department noted that the trust has the right to suspend a school from the program if it does not comply with federal rules.

The latest trouble isn’t the first for the program, but you can expect supporters to gloss over the new report — as they have previous reports of mismanagement — and insist that the voucher program is vital to the cause of “school choice.” They will say the program offers low-income families a way to provide a better education for their children in a city with long-struggling public schools.

Critics will properly say that public money shouldn’t be used for tuition at private schools where there is no public oversight. They see voucher programs — which have been introduced in recent years in a number of states with state funds for students from low- and middle-income families — as part of the corporate-influenced school reform movement that seeks to privatize public education rather than find real solutions to the complex problems that face many public school districts.  They have the far better argument.