House Republicans passed legislation Friday that would extend to 2021 the D.C. schools voucher program — the only federally funded, private school voucher program for K-12 students.
Local D.C. leaders have long been against the voucher program, arguing that it diverts money and students away from the public school system. But federal funding for the local schools system is tied to the legislation, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and some council members have expressed support for the bill.
The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act (SOAR), which passed on a 224-181 vote, authorizes $60 million annually, to be split evenly between the voucher program, public charter schools and traditional public schools in the District.
Bowser and eight council members wrote in a March letter to congressional leaders that a reauthorization of the act is “critical to the gains that the District’s public education system has seen.”
The voucher program is based on the idea that students of all incomes should have the opportunity to opt out of the public school system. Qualifying low-income families are given vouchers to use at private schools of their choosing. In the 2014-2015 school year, 1,442 students used vouchers to pay tuition at 47 private schools in the District, with 80 percent of those students using the vouchers for religious schools. Critics say the bill is a way to fund religious education.
Former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who went to Catholic schools, has been a big proponent of the voucher program. He introduced legislation to extend the program in the fall, which passed the House. It got mangled in the Senate, and has still not been passed.
This House bill is similar to the one Boehner sponsored last year. In this latest bill, however, participating private schools would have to be accredited. In Boehner’s bill, they needed to be accredited within five years.
“I had never seen the House vote on virtually the same bill a second time from the same Congress and that’s about to happen here,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has long assailed the voucher program, said on the House floor.
On the floor, Republican supporters pointed to data showing that 90 percent of voucher students graduate from high school, and nearly just as many enroll in some form of higher education. But federal studies have found that the program does not result in statistically significant academic gains for students, and the Obama administration has tried to shut it down.
“You have some families here that are in real dire straits,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a supporter of the bill. “There is a big D.C. bureaucracy that is not living up to expectations. This program is a life line.”
Some took issue with the legislation because it uses taxpayer money to enroll students in private education institutions that could discriminate against people.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tried to reintroduce the same bill with language that would protect children using the vouchers from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. That failed largely along party lines.
“Public schools have to take everyone,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who is a former public school teacher, said in an interview. “I didn’t have a choice over which students I got assigned. … What we are essentially allowing is for private schools to take public money and not to have to take everybody.”
A Washington Post investigation in 2012 found that quality controls for schools accepting the vouchers in D.C. were lacking. Hundreds of D.C. 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.
This bill — as well as the one that Boehner sponsored in the fall — would require that some students with vouchers take the same standardized tests in math and reading administered to public school students in the District, so the the federal government could compare their academic performance with that of other students.
“This is a bill that gives parents the opportunity to make choices about where their students can attend, and this scholarship program has been a very valuable tool,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who introduced the legislation.