Public Schools

The D.C. voucher program has failed. Some lawmakers want to expand it anyway.

  Mary Cugini

Over the last two decades, the Washington, D.C., private school voucher program has cost federal taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, despite being ineffective, unaccountable and poorly managed.

Given these outcomes, you’d assume that lawmakers would consider ending the program. Yet, rather than admit that the D.C. voucher program is not working, some Republican members of Congress are pushing a measure that would give it even more money. To make matters worse, the plan would cut federal funding for D.C.’s public school system to pour more public dollars into private, mostly religious schools.

The D.C. voucher plan, which is the only federally funded voucher program in the country, authorizes $20 million per year to fund tuition at private schools in the District. But study after study shows that the program is a failure. The plan fails its most basic goal: improving educational opportunities for students, who perform worse than their peers who don’t receive a voucher. Serious accountability and quality control issues plague the program. And the scheme endangers students’ civil rights since the private schools participating in the program do not abide by all federal nondiscrimination protections and civil rights laws despite getting taxpayer funds.

GOP seeks voucher expansion

In mid-July, appropriations committees in Congress considered a funding bill that provides money for the District of Columbia. During those hearings. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) proposed adding an amendment that contained a laundry list of extreme proposals, including a section that would massively expand the D.C. voucher. Womack’s amendment passed on party lines and is now attached to the House funding bill.

In the past, Congress has provided equal federal funds to three education systems in D.C.: traditional public schools, public charter schools and the D.C. voucher program. But Womack’s proposal cuts public school funding to one-sixth and increases the voucher funding by one-half; it will also reauthorize the voucher program through the year 2027. In sum, this proposal would strip $8.75 million per year from D.C.’s public education system and funnel it to private schools instead, and it will prolong this ailing program for at least four more years. If Republican lawmakers get their way, and the bill passes with this amendment, Congress would be diverting desperately needed public funds for the District’s 50,000 public school students to fund a few, select voucher students at private schools.

Local leaders have opposed the program for years, often outlining their objections in letters to Congress. Councilmember Christina Henderson, in particular, has been very concerned about the lack of civil rights protections: “Private schools are exempt from the civil rights protections that every other public school has to follow. … When it comes to students with disabilities, when it comes to students who have other types of academic challenges, when it comes to students who are exploring their gender identities – when you go into the private-school sector, I have no way to protect you.”

Vouchers don’t work

For decades, the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), which AU co-chairs, has pointed out the failures of this program to lawmakers. The Washington Post recently shared our analysis showing that low-quality private schools in the program tend to shutter their doors quickly. Of the 82 schools that have participated in the program since its founding, 35 have shut down. An additional seven schools have stopped accepting vouchers but continue to operate. Oftentimes, the schools stop accepting vouchers because their leaders find complying with even minimal accountability and quality standards, such as school accreditation, simply too challenging.

Negative outcomes are not isolated to the D.C. voucher – they are a feature of all private school vouchers. Private school vouchers don’t improve student achievement, lack basic accountability and oversight standards, fund discrimination, can exacerbate racial segregation and harm religious freedom. (For more details about how private school vouchers harm students, schools, and communities, check out NCPE’s 2023 toolkit for legislators and advocates.)

It’s clear that federal taxpayer dollars should not continue to be funneled into these private schools – which are predominantly religious in character – and should instead be used to support D.C.’s public schools, which serve all students.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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