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Letter to House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Hearing on DC Voucher Program

May 13, 2015

Dear Chairman Chaffetz and Ranking Member Cummings: 

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA) and the students they serve, we write to express our opposition to private school vouchers and offer our comments for the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform’s May 14 hearing, “D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: Making the American Dream Possible.”  

Vouchers take dollars from our public schools to fund private schools at taxpayer expense and deprive students of the rights and protections they are afforded at public schools. Despite receiving public money, participating private schools are not subject to all federal civil rights laws and do not face the same public accountability standards all public schools must meet. Private voucher schools may discriminate against a student based on his or her gender, disability, religion, economic background, national origin, academic record, English language ability, or disciplinary history. Instead of taking taxpayer funds away from public schools and handing them over to private schools, we should focus federal resources on enhancing opportunities that help equip all students for success and close opportunity gaps.  

Vouchers can undermine federal education programs that help level the playing field for those most in need — students who live in poverty or face other barriers to academic success. Students with special needs who use vouchers lose many rights granted by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and may not have the protection of an individualized education plan. US Department of Education reports show that a significant number of students with special needs had to reject their voucher or leave their voucher school because the schools failed to offer them needed services that would have been available to them had they remained in a public school. 

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), the private school voucher program in our nation’s capital, suffers from many of the pitfalls listed above. The current iteration of this program began in 2011 through the appropriation of the Scholarship for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act of 2011 which made available $20 million to be awarded annually on a competitive basis to eligible students through an application process for private school tuition. An October 2014 Department of Education evaluation of OSP shows that the program is proving to be ineffective. According to the report:

  • Most Vouchers Do Not Cover the Full Cost of Private School Tuition – The voucher program can ultimately only help those students whose families have the means of covering extra costs of tuition and fees associated with private school education. 68% of high schools and 62% of K-8 schools charged tuition rates above those of the cap on each student’s voucher. (p. 9)
  • Vouchers Do Not Actually Help Kids Most in Need – If the program’s true goal is to lift up kids in poverty and provide them greater educational opportunities, it fails to do so. While 69% of students who applied for the DC vouchers lived in wards 1, 5, 7, and 8 (the least affluent areas of the city), only 40% of DC voucher schools are located there. Thirty out of the fifty-three voucher schools were located in the four most affluent wards. (pp. 11, 18) Many voucher students in DC do not even come from a public school labeled as being “in need of improvement” but come from other public or even private schools. And, “[s]tudents were less likely to enroll in a private school with an OSP scholarship if their parents were unemployed or not working full time.” (p. 21)  

All of the congressionally mandated US Department of Education (USED) studies that have analyzed the D.C. voucher program have concluded that it did not significantly improve reading or math achievement.  The USED studies further found that the voucher program had no effect on student satisfaction, motivation or engagement, or student views on school safety.  The studies also indicated that many of the students in the voucher program were less likely to have access to key services such as ESL programs, learning supports, special education supports and services, and counselors than students who were not part of the program.  A program that has failed to improve the academic achievement or school experience of the students in the District of Columbia does not warrant reauthorization. 

Private schools are not subject to the same oversight, transparency, and accountability standards as public schools. GAO reports from both 2007 and 2013 document that the D.C. voucher program has repeatedly failed to meet basic and even statutorily required accountability standards. The D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, the organization that is responsible for managing the OSP, has no way to verify that schools are in compliance with standards outlined in the SOAR Act, including whether schools are maintaining valid certificates of occupancy and proper accreditation, are providing information on student achievement to parents, are financially viable, and employ only teachers with bachelor’s degrees for core subjects. Instead the Trust merely relies on each school’s self-certification that they have met the qualifications. (2013 Government Accountability Office Report on DC vouchers, Publication No. GAO-13-805)  

Private school voucher programs fail to achieve their goals and do so at the expense of students and taxpayers. Our goal should be to ensure all students succeed by closing opportunity and resource gaps across the board. We thank you for the opportunity to submit comments for this hearing.  

Sincerely, 

Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations