November 2022 Church & State Magazine

AU And Allies Call For Greater Oversight Of D.C. Voucher Program

  AU And Allies Call For Greater Oversight Of D.C. Voucher Program

Americans United and several allied organizations are calling on the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that the curriculum of the Wash­ington, D.C., voucher program is sufficiently rigorous.

The D.C. voucher plan, which dates to 2003, is the only federally funded program of its kind in the country. During its time in operation, it has been poorly managed, ineffective and unaccountable.

The program received $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.

AU noted that 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 pupils who are not in the program.

The federal law that created the D.C. voucher program also required the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate the program regularly. Several of these studies have revealed that the program isn’t working.

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.

AU, joined by 28 allied organizations at the National Coalition for Public Education, led, organized and submitted comments to the Department of Education supporting this information collection. These vouchers, the groups asserted, are funded by taxpayer dollars, so the program should be subject to reporting and transparency requirements as rigorous as those for public schools.

The comments also called on the department to generate correspondingly more rigorous evaluations and collect more data points.

The department, AU and its allies asserted, should restore the rigor of the D.C. voucher studies. Pro-voucher members of Congress, under Republican leadership in both Houses, watered down the evaluation standards for the program in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration. As study after study came back showing the plan 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 so-called “quasi-research design” – rather than the gold standard mandated before.

AU’s comments urge the department to return to conducting studies with the strongest possible research design and note that any results compiled under the watered-down standards imposed in 2017 should not be viewed with the same level of confidence.

The organizations in question also urged the department to collect new data listing participating private schools, describing the experiences of students with disabilities and reporting instances of 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, including a Washington Post investigation that found that students were using voucher dollars to attend unaccredited, rundown schools that lacked basic facilities and taught questionable curricula.

AU and its allies also point to the possibility of widespread discrimination promulgated against students and their families in the program. Reports from voucher prog­rams nationwide find that voucher schools systematically exclude children based on LGBTQ status, disability or minority religious beliefs.

Sam Sokol, AU’s federal policy advocate, stated on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog that the D.C. voucher program should be abolished.

“The previous studies provide a deep well of evidence that this program, and all vouchers, should not exist,” Sokol asserted. “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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