School Voucher Victory: Congressional Package Limits, Regulates D.C. Private School Aid

It's always nice when we can end the week on a high note. News reports indicate that Congress seems to be on board with adding new regulations to the school voucher scheme in the District of Columbia and eventually closing it entirely.

According to The Washington Post, "buried deep within a thousand-page omnibus spending bill released Monday by a joint conference of House and Senate Appropriations Committee member," only $13.2 million has be allocated to vouchers – just enough funds to support current students in the program. (It's important to note that because Congress has done this as a conference report, it is not amendable and we can be assured there won't be a D.C. vouchers amendment.)

The bill also suggests tightening accountability measures for schools participating in the program. In addition to teachers of core subjects being required to have bachelor's degrees and schools being required to have certificates of occupancy, schools must also be in compliance with the accreditation and other standards that are already required of D.C. private schools. The Department of Education also must inspect schools and file reports on the voucher schools' academic vigor and the voucher schools will have to administer the same tests to their voucher students that students at D.C. public and charter schools receive.

Americans United has been a leader in battling the federally funded D.C. voucher program, which has not significantly improved student performance and serves mainly to subsidize religious education with tax funds.

The program was supposed to expire last year, after serving as a five-year pilot program, but Congress agreed to funding through this year. At that time, President Barack Obama proposed only to continue funding the plan for students already in the program until they graduate.

In June, AU signed on to a letter from the National Coalition for Public Education asking the House Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government to "oppose the continuation of the already expired, failed D.C. private school voucher pilot program."

Then, in September, AU provided written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations' Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, explaining that the voucher program has been detrimental to the education of students in the nation's capital.

AU traced the history of the program, noting that it was heavily promoted under the Bush administration and was approved by the House of Representatives by only one vote in 2004 when many voucher opponents were away from that chamber. It later cleared the Senate only as a result of a procedural move.

The letter also pointed to objective studies by the U.S. Department of Education that prove voucher students from disadvantaged schools have shown no significant improvement in reading or math achievement.

What's more, AU asserted, participating religious schools are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff. Plus, voucher students may not be given a true choice at all since it appears that their families are deliberately steered toward certain schools.

"The federal government should be funding public schools rather than funneling taxpayer funds to private schools that lack accountability, religious liberty and civil rights standards," the letter said.

After working tirelessly behind the scenes to bring this unwise program to an end, AU sees the actions in Congress this week as a big step forward. We wish the voucher program were defunded now, but at least, it seems likely to end when currently enrolled students graduate.

Sectarian pressure groups and their right-wing political allies have put on a furious campaign to expand the voucher plan, but it looks as though they've failed.

We recognize, however, that our work on this issue is not yet done. It's still possible for Sen. Joseph I. Liberman   (I-Conn.) to move forward with his legislation reauthorizing D.C. vouchers and even expanding the program to include lots of new students in the future.

We'll be on a lookout for that. This may be another battle won, but we still know the voucher war is far from over.