DC Vouchers Face Renewal Battle

Published December 8, 2009

While DC parents and children wait to find out whether the District of Columbia’s popular school voucher program will be renewed, the necessary legislation is awaiting action among a muddy and controversial stack of bills slated to make their way through the 111th Congress. Observers expect it will not reach a vote until 2010.

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. With many in Congress strongly opposed to the vouchers, the program will likely endure months of political uncertainty before a reauthorizing vote.

Sources of Opposition

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), 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 barely 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 originally didn’t expect all the 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.”

In other words, Ford notes, it’s congressional horse-trading, as usual.

“At this point we do not have a sense of what’s going to happen,” she said. “There’s still a lot of discussions going on. We’re certainly trying to have Sen. Durbin and Jose Serrano look at the families and the kids. If I had a crystal ball, I could tell you.”

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