U.S. Department of Education Report Shows Continued Shortcomings of DC Voucher Program

The DC voucher program includes mostly religious schools, is unpopular, and doesn't actually reach the students who need it most.

The U.S. Department of Education released a report this week entitled, “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program: An Early Look at Applicants and Participating Schools Under the SOAR Act.”

The Department of Education previously evaluated the DC voucher program back in 2010 and reported that the program did not improve academic achievement, failed students with special needs, and did not improve school safety. It also found that the vast majority of voucher students attended religious schools. The U.S. Government Accountability also released a damning report on DC vouchers last year finding that the program lacks sufficient oversight.

Despite repeatedly being proven ineffective and problematic, the DC voucher program was reauthorized in 2011 though the “Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act,” which expanded the scholarships and attempted to add increased accountability requirements to address quality control problems in the program.

This week’s report is the first of many from a new evaluation of the voucher program since its reauthorization. Turns out, the program remains flawed.

Some of the findings include:

A majority of DC voucher schools are still religiously affiliated.

Private schools currently participating in the voucher program are more likely to be religiously affiliated than non-participating private schools in DC. That means taxpayer money is going to religious education, including some schools that teach creationism, blurring the wall of separation of church and state.

The DC voucher program is unpopular.

Of all students eligible to apply to receive a voucher (must be DC resident and be within 185 percent of the 2011 federal poverty level), only 3-4 percent applied to participate in the years after the program was reauthorized (2011-2013).

DC vouchers do not actually help students who need it most.

The program isn’t reaching students in failing schools. Of all eligible DC students, voucher applicants are disproportionately less likely to have attended a low-performing DC public school. This implies the program is not reaching DC’s neediest students as it claims. In 2011-2013, the percentage of voucher applicants from “schools in need of improvement” (SINI) (64%) was lower than the percentage of income-eligible students in DC not attending SINI (75%).

The program isn’t reaching disadvantaged families. Students with more advantaged families are more likely to use the program. The report finds that students with unemployed and/or unmarried parents apply at lower rates, and recent voucher schools serve a smaller percentage of students from minority racial-ethnic groups than before.

The program excludes families who can’t afford to pay additional tuition. The study shows voucher schools are more likely now than in the past to report higher tuition than the voucher scholarship amounts (64 percent in 2011-12). That means students in the program have to be financially able to pay the rest of the tuition even after receiving the voucher. 

For ten years, the data all points in one direction: the DC voucher program is not a good use of up to 20 million dollars of federal funds annually and should be discontinued. In June, AU and the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE) submitted a letter asking Congress for the elimination of funding of the program. To stay up to date on voucher legislation, sign up for AU email alerts.