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Letter to the Congressional Appropriations Committee Regarding DC Vouchers

December 11, 2015

Dear Chairman Cochran, Ranking Member Mikulski, Chairman Rogers, Ranking Member Lowey:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, we write to express our strong opposition to including the SOAR Reauthorization Act, the DC school voucher program, as part of an FY16 omnibus appropriations bill.  

A renewal of this program, which does not expire until 2017, has no place on an omnibus bill instead of proceeding through regular order. Notably, the two planned Senate committee markups for this measure have been cancelled, including one set for this week.

Vouchers deprive students of important rights and protections. Private schools that participate in the DC voucher program receive public money, but they are not subject to all the federal civil rights laws that public schools must meet—they 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. Students with special needs who use vouchers lose many rights granted by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and may not have the protection of an individualized education plan. As a result, a significant number of students with special needs reject vouchers or leave voucher schools because they fail to provide essential services (Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, U.S. Department of Education, June 2010).

All four congressionally mandated U.S. Department of Education reports on the DC voucher program’s impact on student achievement (published in June 2010, March 2009, June 2008, and June 2007) found no significant improvement in reading or math scores among participants. The program also had no impact on students’ satisfaction, motivation, engagement, or perceptions of school safety. Moreover, participating students were less likely to have access to key services such as ESL programs, learning supports, special education supports and services, and counselors. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s most recent report on the SOAR Act’s impact on the DC voucher program, published barely a year ago, found that:

  • Most vouchers still do not cover the full cost of private school tuition. In 64 percent of the participating schools, tuition exceeds the voucher cap. In light of this reality, the program can ultimately only help students from families with the means to make up the difference.  
  • Vouchers still do not help kids most in need. While 69 percent of the students who apply for vouchers live in wards 1, 5, 7, and 8 (the least affluent areas of the city), less than half (43 percent) of the participating schools are located there. Many voucher students do not come from public schools labeled “in need of improvement,” but from other public—or even private—schools. If the program’s true goal is to lift up kids in poverty and expand their educational opportunities, it fails to do so. 

Students can also suffer because private schools are not subject to the same oversight, transparency, and accountability standards as public schools. Two U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports document the many ways in which the DC voucher program falls short of basic accountability standards—even those that are statutorily required (Actions Needed to Address Weaknesses in Administration and Oversight, September 2013 and Additional Policies and Procedures Would Improve Internal Controls and Program Operations, November 2007). For example, the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, the organization responsible for managing the voucher program, has no way to verify that schools are in compliance with the standards the SOAR Act outlines: maintaining valid certificates of occupancy and proper accreditation, providing information on student achievement to parents, being financially viable, and employing only teachers with bachelor’s degrees for core subjects. Instead, the Trust relies on schools to “self-certify.”

A majority of the DC City Council opposes continuation of the voucher program. As their October letter to Rep. Jason Chaffetz said, “[T]he voucher program is inequitable: if fully funded, the authorization would provide many more dollars per student for vouchers than is allocated per student in public schools and public charter schools.”

The DC voucher program is diverting $20 million per year from public to private schools at a time when sequester-level budget cuts have left essential programs like IDEA severely underfunded. Instead of taking taxpayer funds away from public schools and handing them over to private schools, we should focus on equipping all students for success and closing opportunity gaps for all students, no matter what zip code they live in.

Again, we strongly oppose inclusion of the SOAR reauthorization in a FY16 omnibus bill.

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler

Director of Government Relations

Cc: Majority Leader McConnell
Minority Leader Reid
Speaker Ryan
Minority Leader Pelosi