Congress seems to have a weird obsession with D.C. school vouchers.
Congress created what is formally known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program in 2004 as the only federally funded program that uses public money to pay for private school tuition, though the public has no say in how the schools are run or what is taught. Why did Congress do it? It wanted to make the D.C. Public Schools district a national laboratory for school reform, and it had the support of the then D.C. mayor, Tony Williams (although Congress has many times imposed things on the District without the support of the mayor or the majority of D.C. residents).
Historically Democrats have generally opposed school vouchers, as does the Obama administration, saying that public dollars shouldn’t be spent for private and religious schools over which there is no public oversight. But in recent years some Democrats have bought into the idea as just another “choice” parents should have.
In the 2014-2015 school year, 1,442 students used the federally funded vouchers to pay tuition at 47 private schools in the District, with 80 percent of those schools being religious. A 2012 Washington Post investigation of D.C. voucher schools found that hundreds of students were using 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. A 2013 Government Accountability Office report found that the program was poorly managed.
The program’s big champion in Congress has long been House Speaker John Boehner, the Republican from Ohio who recently announced he is soon leaving Congress. In 2013, when it looked like the program might be killed, Boehner and other congressional backers negotiating a broad budget compromise with the administration insisted that it be part of the package. It survived, though funding was only for current program recipients.
Now it’s 2015 and most of the members of the D.C. Council — the elected representatives of D.C. residents — want to end the program and use the money on public schools. This story by my Post colleague Lyndsey Layton explains that eight D.C. Council members sent a letter to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, saying they would rather the federal government use the money to help public schools, not private schools. The letter says in part:
We have serious concerns about using government funds to send our students to private schools that do not have to adhere to the same standards and accountability as do public and public charter schools. For example, private religious schools, which 80 percent of students with vouchers attend, operate outside the non-discrimination provisions of the D.C. Human Rights Act. Morever, the voucher proposal is inequitable: if fully funded, the authorization would provide many more dollars per student for vouchers than is allocated per student in public schools and public charter schools.
But don’t hold your breath that Congress will bow to their wishes.
Boehner this month introduced legislation to reauthorize the program for an additional five years, and a bipartisan group of senators filed a companion bill to extend the program through 2025. Chaffetz, who routinely denounces the federal government’s involvement in local and state issues, and who sees education as a local and state issue, has nevertheless supported the idea that Congress should pay for the D.C. voucher program.
What’s remarkable about this congressional support is that it’s not just Republicans, who are traditional voucher supporters. Democrats have supported it too (including, it should be noted, the former Democratic mayors of D.C., Tony Williams and Adrian Fenty). Layton wrote:
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a statement that private school vouchers are needed because the D.C. public school system, “often cited as one of the worst in the country, is absolutely failing these children.” He was joined by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.)
Feinstein, it is worth noting, has never pushed for vouchers in her own state. (Booker, the former mayor of Newark, has long been a voucher supporter.) A Feinstein spokesman said the senator initially supported the D.C. program for several reasons, including that the district’s public schools were failing the students, as Johnson says is still happening today. The spokesman also noted that the legislation she introduced last week to extend the program requires that participating schools be accredited.
But as the D.C. Council members noted in their letter, the D.C. education scene in 2004 is not the same as it is today.
“Families can choose from an array of educational institutions based on publicly available performance metrics, both within the D.C. Public Schools system and among the myriad public charter schools. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the progress of D.C. Public Schools ‘remarkable’ while the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has ranked the District’s charter sector as the best in the country.”
Given that the Republicans control Congress, Republicans like vouchers, and in this case some Democrats are on board with the Republicans, the program is highly likely to live — no matter what the majority of the D.C. Council wants. As for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, it appears as if she supports the program. Her spokesman, Michael Czin, told Layton:
“We support federal funding that benefits District residents. The District has been a model for education reform, and the mayor is committed to building on our successes.”
He did not respond to my e-mail asking directly if that amounted to support for the voucher program.