Statement to Congress on DC Vouchers
May 13, 2009
Submitted by NEA to the U.S. Senate Committee on
Homeland Security and Government Affairs
The National Education Association (NEA) respectfully submits these comments for the record in conjunction with the May 13, 2009 hearing conducted by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, entitled “The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: Preserving School Choice for All.”
NEA opposes any extension of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program beyond what is currently provided for under current law. This voucher program, designed as a five-year pilot, has already been extended for one additional year specifically to allow participating students and schools to adjust to the program’s termination and make the necessary transitions. The program has not been proven to increase student achievement. There is no reason to continue to divert scarce resources to a pilot program that has been proven ineffective.
Vouchers are not real education reform. Pulling 1,700 children out of a system that serves 65,000 doesn’t solve problems – it ignores them. Real reform will put a qualified teacher in every classroom, keep their skills up to date with continuing education, and raise pay to attract and retain the best teachers. Rather than offering a chance for a few, we should be ensuring that every child has access to a great public school.
The Pilot Program
The Opportunity Scholarship Program was established as a five-year pilot under the Bush Administration. It was imposed on the residents of the District of Columbia over the objections of numerous pro-public education Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and the residents of the District of Columbia. Congress has never imposed a federal voucher program on any other jurisdiction in the nation, but chose to implement this experiment in the District of Columbia, whose residents have no vote in Congress, despite opposition from a majority of the City Council.
In 1981, DC voters soundly rejected a referendum on a tuition tax credit (which is a different form of government school voucher) with 89 percent opposed and only 11 percent in favor. DC citizens again clearly expressed their opposition to vouchers in an opinion poll conducted in November 2002—prior to Congress’ enactment of the DC voucher program. In that poll, 75 percent of District voters opposed private school vouchers.1
In addition, the District’s only congressional representative, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, along with DC Council members2 and other congressional leaders, strongly opposed (and continue to oppose) the congressional effort to impose vouchers on the District of Columbia. The creation of the DC voucher program contradicts the principle of local control of education by imposing on citizens without a vote in Congress a program for which they and their elected representatives expressed opposition.
Even in Congress, the program passed with the narrowest margin possible—one vote (209-208).3 The narrowness of the vote in the House is even more remarkable considering the vote was taken in a Republican-led Congress while numerous Representatives who opposed vouchers were attending a presidential primary debate in Baltimore, and was held open for an unusually long 40-minute period.4 Among the “no” votes were 14 Republicans.5
In the Senate, the voucher program was stripped from the DC Appropriations bill before it hit the Senate floor because it was clear the bill could not pass with the voucher language.6 The voucher program became law, nonetheless, when it was later inserted into the conference report of a $280 billion omnibus appropriations bill.7 In short, the Senate never even voted on the measure because it could not pass on a floor vote.8
Last year, Congress extended the Program for one additional year. In granting this extension, Congress instructed the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools to take steps to “minimize potential disruption and ensure smooth transition for any students seeking enrollment in the public school system as a result of any changes made to the private scholarship program affecting periods after school year 2009-2010.” Congress also provided that no additional funding beyond the 2009-2010 year would be provided, absent an authorization of the program and consent of the DC City Council. In addition, Congress stipulated that funding was not to be used for schools failing to meet basic health and safety laws or for schools in which teachers teaching core subjects do not have college degrees.
NEA supported the one-year extension and continues to support the language in current law prohibiting any additional funding absent a program reauthorization, which would involve a full and open investigation into the program’s effectiveness and a full accounting of the use of program funds.
We oppose any further extension of funding for the DC voucher program or any reauthorization, particularly given the lack of any evidence that it has made a difference in student achievement.
The Department of Education issued reports analyzing the DC voucher program in 2007, 2008, and 2009. These reports found that the voucher program is not improving student achievement. These findings are consistent with studies of private school voucher programs in Milwaukee9 and Cleveland,10 which have all revealed that vouchers do not improve math or reading achievement.
The Department of Education studies of the DC program have found that students from “schools in need of improvement (SINI),” which are the students targeted by the program, have shown no improvement in reading or math due to the voucher program. 11 The study also concluded that the DC program has had no impact on the math achievement of students overall or of any of the ten subgroups of students in the study.12 In addition, minor increases in reading achievement found by the 2009 study were minimal and did not apply to the key students in the program.13 Students who had attended SINI schools before entering the program and students who were in the lower third of test score performance before entering the program did not improve in reading.14 The two sub-groups of students who showed the most improvement in reading were students for which federal government intervention is the least justifiable: students who did not come from SINI schools and students who were in the top two-thirds of the test-score distribution when they entered the program.15
Furthermore, the Department of Education reports also found that many of the children who left the DC voucher program did so because the voucher schools did not provide the academic support they needed: Of the students who left the voucher program in the first year, 45 percent stated that it was because the “child did not get the academic support he/she needed at the private school.”16 The number shot to 54 percent in the second year and was at 39 percent in the third year.17
Finally, the 2007 Report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also debunks the myth that voucher schools improve academic achievement. That report found that many of the voucher schools were not accredited, and there is no evidence they submitted evidence of educational soundness.18
Accountability and Teacher Quality
The DC voucher program costs taxpayers approximately $14 million of federal money annually, yet the schools are exempt from student testing, teacher qualification, and non-discrimination requirements, as well as open records and meetings laws that apply to public schools.
The teachers in many of the voucher schools lack the qualifications that public school teachers have. For example, the GAO Report found that “at least 3 of 52 schools that participated [in 2004-05] indicated that at least half of their teachers did not have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 6 schools indicated that about 10 to 20 percent of their teachers lacked at least a bachelor’s degree.”19
The 2007 GAO Report demonstrates that the voucher program is not accountable to the parents of participating students. The report concluded that although the Washington Scholarship Foundation (WSF), which administers the program, compiled an annual directory to help parents during the selection process, “it did not collect or omitted or incorrectly reported some information that would have helped parents evaluate the quality of participating schools.”20 And, “[s]ome information WSF did provide to parents may have been misleading.”21 In fact, “WSF incorrectly reported information on some schools that could have significantly affected parents’ choice of schools, primarily the percentage of teachers who had at least a bachelor’s degree and tuition rates.”22
Not all public school students can gain access to a voucher school, as voucher schools are permitted to maintain their admissions standards and, thus, can essentially reject any public school student they choose. Voucher schools can reject students based on prior academic achievement. Voucher schools can also reject students on the basis of gender, and religious schools can discriminate against teachers based on their religion.23 In contrast, public schools serve all students in DC.
Certain groups of DC students have less access to voucher schools than others. For example, students with special needs often cannot find a private school that can serve them: The Department of Education Reports show that a significant number of students had to reject their voucher because they were “unable to find a participating school that offered services for their child’s learning or physical disability or other special needs.”24 Indeed, in the first year of the program, 21 percent of the students who rejected a voucher did so for this reason,25 17 percent rejected it for this reason in the second year, and 16 percent rejected it for this reason in 2009.26
High school students also have less access to voucher schools: “For the school year 2005-2006, only about 70 openings were available at the high school level.”27 And, students seeking non-religious schools also “have a limited number to choose from, since most participating private schools were Catholic or Protestant, and these schools offered the most openings.
Lack of Student Data
We are very concerned that Congress would consider extending funding for students currently in the program despite a startling lack of data about the students. Congress should, at a minimum, be provided detailed information on the grade level and school of each participating student, where the student lives and what public school the student would otherwise attend, and whether the student was already enrolled in the private or religious school prior to the receiving the voucher. We believe that the WSF should be required to provide such information
WSF should also be required to provide information about all the schools participating in the program, including whether they meet health and safety standards, and the qualifications of the teachers.
Transitioning Current Students out of the Program
Proponents of continuing funding for the program cite the potential disruption for students currently participating. However, as stated above, Congress has already extended the program for one additional year for the express purpose of allowing time for necessary transitions.
In addition, ending this program in no way eliminates the ability of the WSF to continue funding scholarships with private donations. The WSF has existed since 1993.28 Before it was selected to administer the DC program, it relied entirely on private donations to provide private school scholarships to DC students and, at the time it was chosen, was giving away more than one-thousand scholarships each year.29 The WSF continues to raise large sums of money and provides scholarships with that money.30 And, with help from private school supporters, the WSF is sure to raise even more money in the future.
Furthermore, the WSF is not the only entity that offers scholarships for private school tuition. There are various scholarship organizations that serve DC students who seek a private school education,31 and individual DC private schools also offer scholarships.32
Finally, some of the students receiving voucher money already attended a private school before getting voucher money, making it unlikely they would have to return to the public schools.33
Despite the fact that the program has been known since its inception as a limited, five-year pilot program, the WSF did not take steps to help parents and students transition. To the contrary, the WSF recently sent out letters admitting new students into the program34, even though the program has not been reauthorized and the explanatory language accompanying the FY2009 Omnibus Appropriations Bill35 stated that no new students should be admitted into the program for the 2009-2010 school year.
Experimentation in the District of Columbia
The DC voucher program was imposed on the residents of the District of Columbia in an unprecedented move that would likely never have been attempted with any other part of the country. Congress overrode the will of DC residents, their elected City Council, and their elected representative in Congress, a feat possible only because the District of Columbia has no voting representation in Congress. Without two Senators and a voting member in the House, DC residents had no power to stop Congress from using their city for this experimentation. The imposition of the voucher program over the objections of DC taxpayers serves to highlight the need to afford DC residents voting representation in Congress – something NEA has long supported.
The real question Congress should be asking is what is the best use of federal funds to ensure ALL children the highest quality education, including the 65,000 children in DC public schools.
If Congress is truly interested in improving the education of children attending schools that have been identified as needing improvement, they should use the tools that have been provided under No Child Left Behind, which requires disaggregation of data to reveal which groups of students need assistance and in which academic areas. This facilitates targeting assistance to those specific needs.
Which programs to implement should be determined locally, but the U.S. Department of Education has created a clearinghouse of research to help school districts, educators, parents, and other stakeholders choose programs that have been proven effective.
The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) has established a comprehensive, systematic process to review studies of education interventions. Through a literature review, initial screening process, and application of evidence standards, a review team dedicated to each topic area assesses the quality of research. A brief review of their database revealed dozens of programs that have been evaluated according to research methodologies that meet this high standard of review, and have been scientifically proven effective at improving student achievement in reading [see Appendix A] and math , at increasing the likelihood of students staying in school and completing their education, [see Appendix C], and at improving the language and achievement of English language learners [See Appendix D].
The evidence is clear and overwhelming: if our intent is to help children succeed, the answer is not a one-size-fits-all magic elixir that has thus far proven only that it does not improve the academic achievement of students attending schools in need of improvement. The answer is to identify and fund proven school improvement strategies, such as those identified by the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse.
We urge Congress to reject efforts to appropriate any additional funding for the DC voucher program and, instead, focus resources on proven strategies to help ALL children excel.
2Robert Marus, “Republicans Add DC Voucher Plan to Unamendable Appropriations Bill,” Assoc. Baptist Press, Nov. 20, 2003, http://www.abpnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2667&Itemid=116 (stating that “the majority of elected officials in D.C. oppose the voucher proposal”).
3Spencer S. Hsu & Justin Blum, “DC School Voucher Bill Passes in House by 1 Vote: Grant Plan for at Least 1,300 Students Goes to Senate,” Wash. Post, Sept. 10, 2003, http://www.kleaonline.org/DC Voucher Bill Passes.htm.
9Witte, Wolf, et al., MPCP Longitudinal Educational Growth Study Second Year Report (Mar. 2009); Witte, Achievement Effects of Milwaukee Voucher program (Feb. 1997); Witte, Stern, & Thorn, Fifth Year Report Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (Dec. 1995).
10Plucker, Muller, et al., Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, Summary Report 1998-2004 (Feb. 2006); Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, Executive Report 1998-2002 (Dec. 2003).
112009 US Dep’t of Educ. Report at35; 2008 US Dep’t of Educ. Report at 34-38 ; and US Dep’t of Educ., Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: Impacts After One Year 44, 46, & xx(June 2007) (2007 US Dep’t of Educ. Report).
28US Dep’t of Educ., “Press Release: Administrator for DC School Choice Incentive Program Selected, March 24, 2004, http://www.dcpswatch.com/vouchers/040324.htm.
30Washington Scholarship Fund, “WSF Programs and Services,” http://www.washingtonscholarshipfund.org/programs/index.html.
32Individual private schools often have their own scholarship funds, such as the one at Sidwell Friends (http://www.sidwell.edu/admissions/financialaid.asp).
33US Gov’t Accountability Office, District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program: Additional Policies and Procedures Would Improve Internal Controls and Program Operations, Pub. No. 08-9 at 5,41 (Nov. 2007) (GAO Report); see also Letter from Senator Feinstein to the Washington Scholarship Fund, Feb. 11, 2005, http://feinstein.senate.gov/05releases/r-dcvoucher021105.htm (stating that 187 vouchers in the first year of the program were offered to students already in private schools).
34Presumed Dead: Politics is driving the destruction of the District's school voucher program,” Wash. Post, April 11, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/10/AR2009041003073_pf.html.