School For Scandal: D.C. Voucher Program Plows Taxpayer Money Into Unaccredited Institutions, Newspaper Reports

The D.C. voucher program has become a type of bailout for Catholic schools.

When Congress created the nation’s only federally funded school voucher program, advocates said the plan would improve the education of some of the poorest urban youths.

Eight years later, it seems clear that things haven’t gone as planned.

A lengthy investigation of the Washington, D.C., voucher program by The Washington Post showed that many parents use the voucher money to send their children to schools that are unaccredited and unaccountable.

In addition, the program has become a type of bailout for Catholic schools. More than half of 1,584 students who receive vouchers use them to attend Catholic institutions.

Some of the schools examined, which include a K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted house, and a school built on the teachings of an obscure Bulgarian psychotherapist, could not survive without federal funds, The Post said. In some cases, more than 90 percent of a school’s students pay with federal vouchers.

Congress allocated $20 million for the D.C. voucher program for this year, The Post reported, and since 2004 the federal government has set aside $133 million for the program. Students who meet the household income requirements can receive about $8,000 per year for elementary school and around $12,000 per year for high school.

And yet, the schools are not accountable to the taxpayers who are forced to fund them. No government official has say over the curriculum, academic quality or management of the schools.  

In fact, the only requirements for D.C. schools that accept voucher students are that the institutions must have a certificate of occupancy and employ teachers who are college graduates. One requirement that is glaringly absent from that list is accreditation. D.C. private schools aren’t required to be accredited in order to enroll voucher students, and The Post found that at least eight of the 52 schools that accept vouchers lack accreditation.

These findings help explain why D.C. officials, including D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) are opposed to the voucher program.

But don’t tell that to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who led the charge for the voucher program back in 2004. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Boehner, said parents should be left to make their own decisions about education for their children.

“Our belief is that parents — when provided appropriate information — will select the best learning environment for their children,” he told The Post.

And don’t bother Boehner with a comprehensive study of the D.C. voucher program released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, which found “no conclusive evidence” that students receiving vouchers showed improved math and reading test scores over their public school peers.

Americans United opposes vouchers for many reasons, and this report highlights many of them. With more than half of D.C. voucher recipients attending Catholic schools, and with no curriculum oversight from the federal government, it’s safe to say that the voucher program is more or less a taxpayer subsidy for religious activity. Given that The Post described Boehner as “a proud product of Catholic schools,” he’s probably not too worried that this is the case. 

If the intent of Boehner and other voucher advocates is truly to improve education for poor urban children, they would take an honest look at this program and shut it down.