Voucher Revival?: ‘School Choice’ Proponents Are Targeting New Congress

The polls have been closed for less than 48 hours, and proponents of religious school voucher subsidies are already on the march.

D.C. Parents for School Choice issued a statement yesterday claiming that Tuesday’s election results will increase the chances of continuing a District of Columbia program that funnels federal taxpayer dollars to religious education.

"Our representatives have the opportunity to right one of the most severe wrongs of the past two years -- the elimination of the [Opportunity Scholarship Program]," said Virginia Walden Ford, the group’s executive director. "The time has come for our new Congress to send a clear message to D.C. parents -- that their needs will no longer fall on deaf ears in the highest corridors of power."

The D.C. voucher program was pushed through Congress by the George W. Bush administration. It passed the House of Representatives by a single vote in 2004 and cleared the Senate only as a result of a procedural move.

The scheme paid up to $7,500 per student for tuition at religious and other private schools and was supposed to be a five-year experiment. The “experiment” was a failure, and after it expired in 2008, Congress limited participation to students already receiving a voucher. No new students were permitted to enter the program – a compromise supported by President Obama.

But despite this compromise, a few members of Congress have sought to reauthorize and expand the program so new students can be admitted. So far, Americans United and our allies have succeeded in stopping these plans.

Unfortunately, it looks like we may have an uphill battle to keep it that way.

D.C. Parents for School Choice said yesterday that it would be mailing packets of information about the voucher program to newly elected House members and senators this week. But I am confident these packets will leave out important facts, such as:

  • Approximately 82 percent of D.C. voucher students attended religious schools in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
  • In its final report on the program, the U.S. Department of Education found no significant improvement in the reading and math scores of students participating in the D.C. voucher program.
  • Studies have also shown that D.C. vouchers have no effect on student motivation, engagement and perceptions of safety. In fact, many voucher schools do not provide key services that public schools do.
  • A 2007 Government Accountability Office report found participating private schools lacked occupancy permits and employed teachers without bachelor’s degrees.

Voucher boosters are blind to this reality. And they want Congress to be, too.

After all, voucher proponents already have the media fooled.

The Washington Post, for example, has been a strong advocate of the program, and has essentially said those who oppose vouchers are wrong. The newspaper has even called AU out by name!

But Americans United has done extensive research on this issue, and we know we are right. The D.C. voucher program does not work and uses our taxes to pay for religious education.

We hope Congress looks at the facts, not pro-voucher propaganda, when this issue comes up.

The D.C. voucher program is just one of many threats to church-state separation we will have to deal with under the new Congress. Stay tuned.