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Rebuttal to WSF's Response to PFAW Report on D.C. Voucher Program


February 8, 2005



On February 7, 2005, People For the American Way Foundation issued "Flaws and Failings: A Preliminary Look at the Problems Already Encountered in the Implementation of the District of Columbia's New Federally Mandated School Voucher Program." [1]Relying on documents obtained through a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request directly from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), which is overseeing the voucher program, and other publicly-available information, our report discusses a number of serious problems in the implementation of the voucher program and flaws in the implementing legislation itself.

The Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF), which is administering the voucher program under the direction of DOE and the Mayor's Office, has posted on its web site a response to our report claiming that it is "irresponsibly biased."[2] However, WSF's point-by-point responses in fact underscore the accuracy of our report and reconfirm the flaws in the voucher program. We address each point of WSF's reply in order:

  • Our report revealed that fewer than 75 students from D.C.'s public schools most in need of improvement have received vouchers for this academic year.

Our report revealed that of the more than 1,300 students who were awarded vouchers for this school year, fewer than 75 attended the 15 D.C. public schools most in need of improvement as defined by federal law -- the group of students given the highest priority by Congress under the voucher program. WSF does not dispute the accuracy of this fact, nor does it even address the revelation in our report that WSF was not forthcoming with the press and public about this fact when it publicized the data on how many students had applied for vouchers.

  • As discussed in our report, the voucher legislation does not prohibit students already attending private schools from receiving vouchers, and indeed vouchers were awarded this year to more than 200 such students.

WSF does not dispute and indeed admits that the voucher legislation does not prohibit students already enrolled in private schools from receiving vouchers, and specifically states that "[i]t is true that 208 students who were already enrolled in private schools received scholarships during the first year of the program..." WSF also does not dispute the fact revealed in our report that it had urged that this number be even higher. Significantly, in its response to our report, WSF has now promised publicly that if it is successful in publicizing the voucher program to students in public schools, "no other current private school students will have a chance to receive scholarships."

  • As discussed in our report, the annual evaluation cannot be done this year as Congress mandated.

In the legislation creating the voucher program, Congress mandated that the program be evaluated annually, and that the evaluation compare, among other things, the academic achievement of students who received vouchers with that of students in the same grades who sought but did not receive vouchers. Our report discussed previously published information in the Washington Post as well as newly-disclosed documents from DOE stating that, because of the insufficient number of students who sought vouchers, there is an insufficient number of students who did not receive vouchers for such an evaluation to be conducted this year as Congress mandated. In its response to our report, WSF admits that this is the case for students in grades K-5, but claims that "there is a control group for grades 6-12."

However, the DOE documents provided to us were not qualified in this manner. For example, Marsha Silverberg of DOE's Institute of Education Sciences, which is overseeing the evaluation, stated in a June 10, 2004 e-mail to Sally Sachar of WSF concerning expected press questions about the evaluation that WSF could reply:

The Department will be evaluating the program, including testing and tracking the progress of students who applied and received scholarships this year. If anyone asks, we would say that we will compare the performance of this year's students to the performance of DCPS students, as required by the law. There is not an adequate control group this year for a comparison of applicants who did and did not receive scholarships , but we anticipate having one for next year's cohort.

(Emphasis added.) The very next day, the Washington Post reported that "[f]ederal officials had planned to assess the program's effectiveness by comparing the performance of voucher recipients to that of students who wanted grants but were forced to remain in public schools. Because of the low number of applicants, such a study will not be possible in the first year, federal officials said."[3]

  • Our report discussed the fact that government-funded religious coercion is a possibility at religious voucher schools.

The vast majority of private schools participating in the voucher program are religious schools, which typically infuse religion and religious worship into the school day. Unlike the Wisconsin statute creating the Milwaukee voucher program, which allows parents of voucher students to "opt" their children out of "any religious activity" at voucher schools, the D.C. voucher law contains no such protection. Our report thus observed that religious coercion is therefore a "possibility at religious voucher schools." (Flaws and Failings, at 12, emphasis added.) WSF's response does not and cannot dispute this. Instead, WSF misrepresents our report as "assert[ing] that scholarship students are being religiously coerced." (Emphasis added.) Our report said nothing of the kind. Interestingly, WSF acknowledges that one of the voucher families had "taken issue with the religious nature of the child's education." WSF claims the problem was solved by the student's transfer to another school. But some voucher students might not be in a position to transfer, or might fear the loss of their vouchers were they to complain.

  • Our report states that the private schools participating in the voucher program are the recipients of public funds.

WSF takes issue with our statement that voucher schools are receiving federal taxpayer funds, claiming that it is "the families [that] are recipients of the federal dollars." This is nothing more than semantic quibbling by WSF. In fact, as WSF has specifically informed parents of voucher students, WSF sends the federal voucher funds directly to the private voucher schools in the form of checks that are made out to the parents but must be endorsed over to the private schools.[4]

  • Our report discusses a Washington Post story concerning a voucher student at Sidwell Friends School.

In our discussion of the fact that more than 200 students already attending private schools were awarded vouchers this year -- a fact that WSF does not dispute -- we also cited a story published by the Washington Post reporting that one of those students, now in the 8th grade at Sidwell Friends School, had attended that school since the 5th grade "on a nearly full private scholarship." S. Chan and V. Strauss, "For Voucher Program, The Lessons Begin," Washington Post (Sept. 5, 2004).[5] WSF claims, however, that our report "erroneously alleges that the Sidwell Friends School accepted a scholarship for a student who was already enrolled. The fact is that this child did not receive a 'voucher' specifically because Sidwell did not want to substitute public monies for private dollars."

In fact, and as WSF conveniently ignores, it was the Washington Post that reported that this particular student who was already enrolled at Sidwell Friends was receiving a voucher. The article specifically identified this student by name, as it did several other students, and stated that this (otherwise non-public) information came directly from WSF: "The Washington Scholarship Fund…provided the names of several families willing to discuss their reasons for applying for vouchers ." Id. (emphasis added).

While we are not aware of what may have transpired after the Post's article was published, it is certainly possible that Sidwell Friends may have thought better of this arrangement.

  • Our report observes that the voucher law allows voucher schools to charge students more than the voucher amount of $7,500, and that WSF attempted to obscure this fact.

In our report, we noted that one of the limitations on genuine "choice" by voucher students is that the voucher law does not prohibit private schools participating in the voucher program from charging students tuition in excess of the voucher amount of $7,500 if their tuition rates are higher. WSF does not dispute the accuracy of our report, but claims that as far as it knows, no voucher school is charging students more than the voucher amount this year for tuition. Significantly, WSF does not dispute the greater point made in our report on the issue of a tuition cap, which is that WSF persisted in efforts to misinform private schools about the existence of a cap, although DOE repeatedly informed WSF that it could not tell private schools that they were prohibited from charging voucher students more than the voucher amount.

  • As our report discusses, "guidance" issued by DOE and WSF to religious voucher schools was misleading as to the schools' obligations not to discriminate against students with disabilities.

As we recounted in our report, both DOE and WSF issued guidance to private schools interested in the voucher program about their obligations under civil rights laws. That guidance was confined specifically to federal law, and never mentioned the D.C. Human Rights Act. In particular, the guidance issued by DOE and WSF to religious schools interested in the voucher program stated that federal law did not prohibit them from discriminating against students with disabilities in admissions:

The entity that administers this program must select students who are eligible to participate through a lottery that does not discriminate on the basis of disability and will help place those students in schools that best meet their needs. The issue of whether a student with a disability must be given an equal opportunity to attend a particular, participating private school is more complicated. No Federal law forbids a participating religious school from discriminating against students with disabilities in admissions, assuming the school does not receive Federal financial assistance under other programs.[6]

As we pointed out, however, the D.C. Human Rights Act does in fact prohibit such discrimination by religious (and other private) schools in the city. WSF does not dispute this, nor does it dispute the fact that, as we reported, neither it nor DOE mentioned the Human Rights Act in the guidance it gave to private voucher schools. According to WSF, this was unnecessary because the Human Rights Act "has been on the books for nearly three decades, and every school participating in the program understands it." However, by confining their guidance to federal civil rights law, DOE and WSF specifically created the impression that it is permissible for religious voucher schools to discriminate against students with disabilities; there is simply no other reasonable reading of the guidance quoted above. And given the existence of the D.C. Human Rights Act, which WSF now claims is so well known, what was the purpose of issuing such misleading guidance? As we stated in our report, particularly given this guidance, DOE and WSF should now clearly and unequivocally inform all religious and other private schools participating in the voucher program of their specific obligations under the D.C. Human Rights Act.

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Nothing in the response issued by WSF to our report can change the facts: the D.C. voucher program is taking millions of dollars in public funds and diverting them to religious and other private schools. As implemented this first year, the voucher program is not even primarily serving those students prioritized by Congress -- low-income students attending D.C.'s public schools most in need of improvement. Moreover, according to WSF, the number of such public schools has now risen from 15 to 68. The answer to this problem is not to lift a few children out of those schools, the answer is to fix public schools for all children, so that every child has the same opportunity for a good education and no child truly is left behind.

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[1] The report is available at http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/dfiles/file_485.pdf.  [ Back]

[2]  http://www.washingtonscholarshipfund.org/pfawresponse.asp> (visited Feb. 8, 2005). [Back]

[3]           Justin Blum, “D.C. School Vouchers Outnumber Applicants,” Washington Post (June 11, 2004). [Back]

 

[4] See WSF “Frequently Asked Questions About the Opportunity Scholarship Program” (Aug. 27, 2004)(“Q. What will I need to do to make sure that the school receives payment for tuition?” “A. . . WSF will send the checks to the school, but the check will be made out to you, the parent or guardian.  It will be your responsibility to go to the school four times each year to sign those checks over to the school in payment for tuition and fees”).  These WSF FAQs are available at <http://www.dcscholarship.org/familyfaq.php (visited Dec. 30, 2004).[Back]

[5]           “Kathleen has attended Sidwell Friends on a nearly full private scholarship since the fifth grade, and is one of 208 students already enrolled in private schools who received vouchers.”  Id. [Back]

[6] U.S. Department of Education, D.C. Choice Incentive Program, Frequently Asked Questions, No. 14 (emphasis added), <http://www.ed.gov/programs/dcchoice/faq.html> (visited Dec. 28, 2004).  The same answer was given to voucher schools by WSF in a set of Frequently Asked Questions, at 5 (Apr. 28, 2004), and posted on its web site, <http://www.dcscholarship.org/schoolqa.php%3E%28FAQs as of May 13, 2004)(visited May 27, 2004).
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