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Teachers Losing Jobs to Save Vouchers?

Congress talks millions for failing program while public school teachers are put on the streets

By Kevin Hart

It was a page right out of a handbook on how to scar students for life. Nearly 400 Washington, D.C. school employees lost their jobs at the end of last week – 229 of them teachers – and some were escorted out of their schools by police right in front of the very kids they had spent years teaching.

The student and community reaction was predictable – outrage. Students at several area schools mobilized and protested the cuts, which Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee said were necessary due to “exceptional budget pressures.”

At McKinley Technical High School, police had to be deployed to deal with angry students and parents. The Washington Teachers Union is filling suit to get the jobs restored, and some politicians are pushing for an inquiry.

How much would it take to save these eliminated jobs? Well, the $13 million Congress allocated for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship vouchers program during the 2009 fiscal year would be a good start.

The vouchers program provides $7,500 a year for 1,700 public school students to attend private schools. It was only designed to be a five-year pilot, and is scheduled to be phased out this year. However, Congress is currently considering legislation to keep the program going another five years, despite its questionable results and the severe lack of funding currently affecting Washington, D.C. public schools.

According to NEA Research, the average salary for Washington, D.C. public school teachers is $60,628 (for the 2007-08 school year, which is the most recent data available). If the money Congress is debating spending to continue the ineffective vouchers program was spent on public education, it could cover the salaries of 214 teachers. Those teachers would service 3-4 times more students than the 1,700 a year who qualify for vouchers.

Since their inception, vouchers have produced questionable results, and it remains unclear whether the majority of Washington, D.C. residents even want them.

The vouchers program passed by one vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004, and only passed the Senate after it was attached as a rider to an appropriations bill. Washington, D.C. residents themselves had voted on a tuition tax credit bill – similar to vouchers – more than 20 years earlier, and had defeated it by nearly a nine-to-one margin.

Although the vouchers program is popular with some parents, its results have been unimpressive. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, students from schools labeled “in need of improvement” – the very students vouchers are supposed to help – have not experienced any gains in reading or math after using vouchers to attend private schools. In fact, there were no gains in math for any of the student groups measured, and there was no decrease in student violence.

Vouchers supporters have made much of some 2009 research showing slight reading gains, but those gains were not among at-risk students. That same research showed that students in the bottom-third in terms of federally-mandated test scores did not experience any improvement in reading. 

That finding comes as no surprise, after a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office found that many of the schools participating in the vouchers program were unaccredited, and some of the schools use teachers who lack bachelor’s degrees.
Because vouchers provide $7,500 per year, per student, many elite private schools do not participate. And some of the students receiving vouchers were already enrolled in private schools, casting doubt on whether they are effective at targeting the at-risk student populations for which they are intended.

So, while questions about the program continue, 388 D.C. public school employees are now faced with the nearly insurmountable task of finding new jobs in a down economy, after the school year has already begun. They’ll search for jobs while Congress debates giving millions more to a highly political program that, after five years, is still yet to show the results it promised.


Students protest teacher layoffs at McKinley Tech High School in Washington, D.C. Click to watch Fox report.