DC Vouchers Face Renewal Battle

Published December 11, 2009

Education reform and school choice advocates nationwide are already mourning the likely loss of the groundbreaking DC Opportunity Scholarship voucher program.

The U.S. House of Representatives delivered a blow by voting late on December 10 to let it expire. An omnibus spending bill pending in the U.S. Senate includes six bills that purport to continue funding for students currently in the program, but deny entry to new ones while weighing participating schools down with requirements about testing and site visits.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has led the charge against it in the upper chamber for months. If that body also chooses to allow the program to expire, the bill will land on the desk of President Barack Obama, who was largely educated through scholarships to private schools but has thus far remained completely silent on the issue of allowing low-income, predominantly black, children in the nation’s capital to have the same opportunity.

Unless it passes, federally funded vouchers of up to $7,500 for about 1,700 students to attend private schools will cease after school lets out for summer 2010.

On December 17, a bipartisan group of his colleagues demanded that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid allow the matter to come to an up-or-down vote. According to a letter signed by Sens. Joe Liberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Robert Byrd (D-WV), George Voinovich (R-OH), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and John Ensign (D-NV), the program has “provided a lifeline to many low-income children in the District of Columbia,” and scheduled a January 31, 2010 deadline to discuss the issue on the Senate floor.

At the same time, U.S Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) introduced H.R. 4312, a resolution to continue the program as established. The bill is cosponsored by U.S. Reps. John Boehner (R-OH), John Kline (R-MN), Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ); however, policy analysts on Capitol Hill told School Reform News they doubt it will gain much traction.

Sources of Opposition

Durbin, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the vouchers, held several September hearings questioning their value.

“There are still unresolved issues about the effectiveness of the program and questions about [its] administration,” Durbin said in opening remarks for the second hearing. He cited lackluster progress among voucher students mentioned in several Department of Education reports. DC public schools perform notoriously poorly by nearly every measure, and reform efforts, even by the relatively new and strong-willed Chancellor Michelle Rhee, face a history of failure, lack of infrastructure, political infighting, and tight funds.

Assessments have rated DC voucher students as performing slightly better than their public-school counterparts. Students, parents, and teachers, however, have consistently and enthusiastically supported the program, holding public rallies and sending e-mails to Durbin and U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) urging them to reauthorize the program.

Strong Union-Backed Resistance

Durbin has indicated he might support continuing the program with added requirements, such as having voucher students take the same achievement tests as public-school children. Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice and the mother of a voucher recipient, said she initially didn’t expect the strong resistance the reauthorization efforts have encountered.

“We expected to be reauthorized and expanded, because we understood that if the children showed they made academic gains, it would be authorized,” she said. “The three evaluations the Department of Education [sponsored] each time showed gains.”

Ford believes local teachers unions and the National Education Association are behind the opposition. A November joint report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Center for American Progress, and American Enterprise Institute confirms her suspicions. The report notes 77 percent of DC public school principals consider teachers unions a barrier to removing effective teachers. That’s a problem charter and private schools don’t have.

Future Gains?

The Department of Education evaluations Ford mentioned, however, offer opponents a slight toehold. The most recent evaluation, issued in March, reported voucher students gained three months of additional learning in reading and respectable gains in parent satisfaction and perception of school security, but no progress in math scores when compared with their public-schooled counterparts.

Bills in the House and Senate reauthorizing DC vouchers, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), await further evaluation in committee before they can reach their respective floors for a vote.

“Right now, the primary focus is accountability of taxpayer dollars, and looking at the testing and accreditation process,” said Max Gleischman, Durbin’s press secretary. “[Durbin] is open to negotiations and anticipating further discussions.”

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.