Washington, D.C., is home to the nation’s only federally funded private school voucher program. And it’s a mess.
The plan, rammed through Congress during a 2004 late-night session when many members were away from the chamber, has been stumbling along for years. Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education have shown that students taking part in the plan are doing no better academically than their peers in public schools.
In addition, an investigation last year by The Washington Post found that the amount of the vouchers, $8,000-$12,000, is not enough to pay the annual tuition at the exclusive private schools in the region – most of which don’t want voucher students anyway.
As a result, vouchers in D.C. are largely subsidizing Catholic schools or private schools of questionable quality that sprang up to take advantage of the program.
One school, the Academy for Ideal Education, bases its educational model in part on something called “Suggestopedia.” The underlying theory is that students can learn by tapping into the power of suggestion. Other “schools” operate out of store fronts or private homes.
Some of the schools taking part in the voucher program aren’t accredited. One of them, Muhammad University of Islam, is affiliated with the Nation of Islam, a racially separatist sect with a record of anti-Semitism and homophobia.
How did this happen? A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sheds some light. It turns out that the program simply lacks any serious oversight.
The GAO report found that the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, a non-profit group that is supposed to run the program, “does not effectively oversee participating schools, has not implemented effective policies and procedures, and is unable to efficiently manage day-to-day program operations.”
One example: Schools taking part in the voucher plan are supposed to be financially sustainable. The idea behind this was to exclude fly-by-night schools that would come into existence merely to milk the taxpayers through federal funding.
Yet that is exactly what is happening. The Post found “a number of schools that were heavily dependent on tax dollars from the voucher program, with more than 90 percent of their students paying with federal vouchers.”
The newspaper noted that the GAO’s investigators singled out five schools with extremely high percentages of voucher students. One of them, the Academia de la Recta Porta International Christian Day School, consists entirely of voucher students.
The GAO report pointed out that procedures implemented by the Children and Youth Investment Corporation “lack detail in several areas related to school compliance and financial accounting, which may result in little overall accountability for program funds.”
When the D.C. plan was implemented, it was described as a five-year experiment. In 2009, the five years lapsed, and President Barack Obama recommended ending the program. But John Boehner, who was then House Minority Leader, used the plan as bargaining chip in budget negotiations with Obama. It was given new life.
Boehner is now Speaker of the House and from that powerful perch has vowed to keep using your tax dollars to fund the D.C. voucher program. The experiment, it seems, must be kept alive – even though all evidence shows that it has failed.
Let this be a lesson to all of us: Voucher proponents talk about “choice” and “options” and merely wanting to try a new approach to see if it works. The D.C. fiasco has shot down all of those arguments. There are precious few choices, and the option to admit students always remains with the people who operate private schools, not the parents.
Still the plan lurches along. Maybe it’s time to admit that the forces driving this scheme are hatred of public education (and indeed government-sponsored programs generally), a desire to undermine church-state separation by propping up flagging Catholic schools and a data-proof belief among anti-government ideologues that a private system is always better than a public one.