There was something buried in the news that a U.S. House committee had just advanced a bill renewing federally funded school vouchers in Washington — the only such program in the country — and it is highly revealing about Republican priorities when it comes to protecting the civil rights of students.
A bill to extend the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act, known as SOAR, through 2022 was approved Friday by the House Oversight Committee, which is chaired by Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who spends a lot of time trying to tell D.C. residents what to do, even though he was elected by people in Utah. But the panel’s Republicans voted down Democratic efforts to add amendments that would protect the civil rights of students with disabilities and LGBT students.
SOAR was first approved by Congress in 2003 as a compromise that would provide federal money to low-income D.C. students to use for private and religious school tuition as long as it also gave extra money to charter schools and traditional public schools in the District. Since 2004, SOAR has given more than $675 million. It also survived several attempts by the Obama administration to kill it. There are now 1,154 students in the program, but the head of the nonprofit that administers the program recently said he expects new federal resources to expand.
Supporters say SOAR gives parents resources to choose the right school for their children, while opponents say it provides public support for unaccountable private and religious schools and that such programs are part of a movement to privatize the U.S. public education system.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Trump are big supporters of vouchers and similar programs that use public money for private and religious school tuition, and Trump has said that he wants to spend $20 billion to expand school choice.
How the Trump administration will address securing the civil rights of students with disabilities has been an issue for some time. Trump mocked a reporter with disabilities during the campaign season, and at her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, DeVos revealed a lack of understanding of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and what it does. The Trump administration has also rolled back federal guidelines specifying that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity.
Though the District has its own local government, Congress can override its decisions (a key reason that many people in the District want the city to become a state). SOAR has been backed and opposed by various D.C. officials over the years; Mayor Muriel E. Bowser supports it, but a majority of the D.C. Council just sent a letter urging House Republicans to phase out the program.
House Republicans, though, don’t generally care what D.C. residents think, sometimes voting to overturn legislation passed by the D.C. Council that they don’t like. They also sometimes offer up outrageous ideas for the District, such as Chaffetz’s recent suggestion that Maryland absorb D.C.’s residential areas and his proposal encouraging U.S. agencies located in the District to leave the city and set up headquarters elsewhere.
Studies of SOAR over the years have found that most vouchers awarded don’t cover the cost of tuition and that voucher schools have not achieved significant improvement in reading or math scores among participants, though graduation rates have risen. A 2012 Washington Post review found that most students enrolled in SOAR attend Catholic schools but that hundreds of others were attending schools in unconventional settings, such as a family-run K-12 school operating out of a storefront and a Nation of Islam school based in a converted Deanwood residence. The Nation of Islam school recently left the program.
Students with disabilities who attend a private school with a voucher awarded through the program lose some of the civil rights protections they are granted under IDEA. For example, IDEA requires that traditional public schools have an individualized education program that spells out needed support and accommodations for students with disabilities, but private schools aren’t required to offer one. That’s common with state-funded voucher and tax-credit programs, including tax-credit programs in Florida championed by DeVos.
When Chaffetz’s committee debated the SOAR bill last week before the vote, Democratic members offered amendments that would prohibit voucher schools from discriminating against students on the basis of “actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” and requiring each voucher school to provide every student with special needs “with all of the applicable protections available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”
They were voted down along party lines, with all Republicans voting against. Another Democratic amendment was defeated, too; it sought stricter evaluation of SOAR.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Education Committee and a member of Chaffetz’s panel, said during the discussion that Democrats were wrong when they said that the bill would not protect against discrimination of students, because D.C. law would guard their civil rights.
She was corrected by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative, who told her, “These are private schools. So the District law does not cover private schools.”