DC Vouchers Return to Front Burner

Published April 1, 2003

The significance of the Supreme Court’s historic Zelman decision last June was recognized immediately by elected supporters of parental choice in education. Representative Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) was among those who mused on the enormity of the decision’s impact.

“The best thing we can do to improve education is to expand parental choice and increase competition,” he said at the time, “and today’s ruling will allow that to happen.”

In the opening weeks of his second term, Flake rose to his own challenge by introducing the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act. The proposal updates the plan championed in recent years by now-retired Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), offering vouchers for District of Columbia children in grades K-12 with family incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line.

The Flake plan allows poor families to receive scholarships of up to $5,000 ($3,750 for families within the limit but above the poverty threshold) or the cost of tuition–whichever is lower. Students can choose to attend any public or private school in the District or in nearby Maryland or Virginia.

President George W. Bush’s FY 2004 budget also includes a school voucher program for DC families. Education Secretary Rod Paige described the administration’s proposal as one in which vouchers would be provided only if District officials agreed to opt into the plan. But an aide to the Secretary later speculated to the Washington Post that vouchers could still be awarded through a nonprofit scholarship organization in the event the District did not choose to participate directly.

Funding for District vouchers in the President’s budget is provided through a proposed new $75 million Choice Incentive Fund to support expanded choice opportunities through competitive grants. House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) praised the new fund, noting the importance of advancing parental choice efforts in the midst of unprecedented increases in federal education spending.

“It’s essential that some of those resources be used to provide new options for low-income parents, and new support for charter schools,” he said.

In a December 2002 paper for the Cato Institute that concluded new options were needed in the District, policy analyst Casey J. Lartigue Jr. noted 36 percent of DC public school students scored “Below Basic” in mathematics on the Stanford 9 achievement test in 2001. In reading, 25 percent scored “Below Basic.” He also observed that in more than two-thirds of District high schools, 90 percent of students tested at levels of either Basic or Below Basic in both reading and math.

As expected, the voucher plans provoked a heated response as District officials–including Mayor Anthony Williams, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton–all leaped to challenge the voucher concept.

“The failure of some public schools to offer even the semblance of an education seems to upset voucher critics less than the mere mention of vouchers does,” observed a February 12 Washington Post editorial endorsing the President’s plan.

Some expressed concern that the size of the vouchers would fall short of the full cost of a private education. Per-pupil public school spending in the District topped $9,900 for the 1999-2000 school year, the third highest in the nation behind only New Jersey and New York.

“If the voucher program goes forward in the District, we hope it will contain enough funds to meet the cost of private tuition,” the Post continued.

Bush Tax Credits

Bush’s fiscal year 2004 budget also contains $226 million in refundable tax credits for parents who choose to move their children out of public schools identified as in need of improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act. Those parents would receive a credit of 50 percent of the first $5,000 in tuition, fees, and transportation costs incurred in transferring to a private school or another public school. The credit would be refundable, offering a direct pay-out to parents who owe no taxes because of their low income.

No Child Left Behind requires public school districts to facilitate choice for families stuck with low-performing schools. To date, the options made available to those parents have been very limited, as school districts have said better options simply do not exist. Many who supported last year’s reforms see the Bush tax credit plan as representing a logical and powerful next step.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].