D.C. vouchers and the arrogance of Congress
The issue in this case isn’t whether you support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (that is a separate debate). It’s whether federal lawmakers should be using threats to get the city to do what they want and using kids as pawns.
Lawmakers who threaten to hold back money for children's education if they don't get what they want make a mockery out of thoughtful school reform and policy-making, not to mention the right of District residents to govern themselves.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I) and Susan Collins (R) spoke sternly to District officials, saying that Congress probably will cut funding for city schools if efforts to revive the program are not successful this year.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) testified at the hearing that he was opposed to the voucher program (the first federally funded one in the country), while Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) expressed his support. Yes, there was a split. No, it shouldn’t be resolved by Congress.
The $14 million program was created in 2004 by a Republican-led Congress. It provides $7,500 annual vouchers to low-income families to send their children to private school, most of them religious. To assauge opponents of vouchers, Congress agreed to provide more federal money to the city for traditional public schools and public charter schools as well.
The program -- which has served more than 3,700 students, most of them black or Hispanic -- lost favor under the Obama administration and the Democratic-led Congress. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan support public charter schools as alternatives to badly performing traditional public schools, rather than vouchers. In 2009, the program was suspended, no longer accepting new students though allowing those already using vouchers to keep them through graduation.
A 2010 report by the Education Department, the final evaluation of the voucher program ordered by Congress, said, “There is no conclusive evidence that the [the program] affected student achievement.” In this case, student achievement meant standardized test scores, which, any reader of this blog knows, I don't think is real achievement. The report also said, almost as an aside, that "the program significantly improved students’ chances of graduating from high school.”
Supporters of the voucher program say that they offer low-income families a way to provide a better education for their children in a city with long troubled public schools. Critics of vouchers say, among other things, that voucher programs take valuable resources from public schools, give public money to religious institutions and provide nowhere near the accountability or oversight required of public schools.
On Wednesday, Gray made other arguments to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: That Congress had no business intruding on the city’s local affairs. That parents in the city already have educational choices, including dozens of public charter schools and traditional schools that he said were improved because of reform launched by former chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Still he was told that the city could lose as much as $60 million in federal funding for education if he didn’t do what the senators wanted.
The fight over the vouchers is another example of the thoughtless, piecemeal way that this country makes school-funding decisions. School budgets go up and down annually based on politics and with no thought to the damage being done to educational programs. No district can make real, sustained improvements without knowing from year to year that it will have sufficient resources.
Sure, $60 million is a lot of money for the city to lose. But it would be a shame if Gray changed his mind on vouchers under the weight of the threat. That could be more costly to the city’s independence in the long run.
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| February 18, 2011; 11:18 AM ET
Categories: Vouchers | Tags: congress, d.c. home rule, d.c. opportunity scholarships, d.c. vouchers, joe lieberman, kwame brown, mayor gray, mayor vincent gray, private schools, sen. susan collins, vouchers
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