Religious Minorities

Americans United And Its Allies Are Pushing For More Rigorous Studies Of The D.C. Private School Voucher Program

  Samantha Sokol

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

As the only federally funded voucher program in the country, the D.C. voucher scheme authorizes $20 million per year to fund tuition at private, mostly religious schools in Washington, D.C. Yet the program fails to improve educational opportunities for kids. In fact, children in the program perform worse than their peers who are not in it.

Serious quality control issues plague the participating schools. The D.C. voucher plan also fails students with disabilities and sends kids to private schools where they are less likely to have access to basic safety measures, a nurse’s office, a cafeteria or counselors than kids who are not in the program.

How do we know about all these results? The federal law that created the D.C. private school voucher program also required the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate the program regularly. Study after study performed by the department and even by the Government Accountability Office continue to reveal this litany of failures. Thanks to these repeated evaluations, the D.C. voucher plan is one of the most studied voucher programs in the nation, providing even more evidence for what decades of research has shown: Vouchers don’t work.

In August, the department published a notice announcing that it would be collecting more information from students and families so it could continue to perform the next study required by law. It plans to collect new information about participating families, students with disabilities and parent participation and satisfaction. With 28 of our allies at the National Coalition for Public Education, AU led, organized and submitted comments to the Department of Education supporting this information collection. These vouchers are funded by taxpayer dollars, so the program should be subject to rigorous reporting and transparency requirements, just like public schools. We’re pleased to see the department committed to conducting these studies.

But the department should do more. Our comments recommend more rigorous evaluations and collecting more data points.

First, the department should restore the rigor of the D.C. voucher studies. Unfortunately, pro-voucher members of Congress watered down the evaluation standards for the program in 2017. Committed to the cause of undermining public education and funneling public money to private, religious schools, voucher advocates don’t want bad study results to get in the way. As study after study came back showing the D.C. voucher was a failure, they decided that instead of ending the program, they’d end rigorous evaluations. Voucher advocates succeeded in pushing Congress to amend the D.C. voucher law to require less stringent standards for the studies – a “quasi-research design” – rather than the gold standard mandated before.

Our comments urge the department to return to conducting studies with the strongest possible research design and note that any results compiled under the new, watered-down standards should not be viewed with the same level of confidence.

Second, we urged the department to collect new data on things like participating private schools, the experiences of students with disabilities, discrimination against students and graduation rates. While the department has not studied these aspects of the program in detail, other research has revealed troubling information – like a Washington Post investigation that found that students were using voucher dollars to attend unaccredited, run-down schools that lacked basic facilities and taught questionable curricula, including one school where the curriculum was built around yoga and stretching following the philosophy of a Bulgarian psychotherapist.

There is quite possibly widespread discrimination occurring against students and their families in the program – just like in other voucher programs across the country. For example, reports from voucher programs nationwide find that voucher schools systematically exclude children based on LGBTQ status and disability and force families to sign religious statements of faith. We need more data to reveal the extent of these problems in the nation’s capital.

Of course, while rigorous studies are important, our ultimate goal is to end the D.C. voucher program once and for all. The previous studies provide a deep well of evidence that this program, and all vouchers, should not exist. With our allies, AU continues to urge Congress to phase out the D.C. voucher program and return the taxpayer funds wasted on vouchers to public school students. As always, we’re fighting to keep public funds in public schools, rather than funneling them to private, religious schools.

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