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Posted at 11:18 AM ET, 02/18/2011

D.C. vouchers and the arrogance of Congress

By Valerie Strauss

U.S. legislators have some nerve telling the District government that Congress will probably cut funding for the city’s public schools if D.C. officials don’t revive a federal voucher program.

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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Its a shame that DC can't be trusted to just do the right thing to begin with. Its a shame that DC spends a ton on its students and gets such horrible results. Its also a shame that DC (and this blog) cares more about the teacher's union than about those attending the school.

DC is like your teenage kid. You want to give it every opportunity to make the right choice, but sometimes it just needs to be to told what to do for its own good.

Posted by: Natstural | February 18, 2011 1:05 PM | Report abuse

The voucher program allows the privates school to screen applicants and only take the ones they want, and kick out children on the same terms as those paying with funds from other sources. In spite of this limitation they did not show better performance. As far as the improved graduation rate, you can only compare these kids to a cohort of children that DCPS had identified as academic achievers and exclude behavior problems and special needs children. The degree to which these kids are graduating at a higher rate may be entirely due to the private schools kicking back to DCPS the children who wouldn't graduate. It is a program just arranges for involved parents, who might be just the kind DCPS needs to engage in their local schools to see improvement, to leave the system.

If you want to see if their performance is as good as DCPS you need to compare these children to children at Ellington, Walls and the other DCPS schools that get to only accept academic acheivers.

Posted by: Mulch5 | February 18, 2011 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Is this congressional "interference" in city politics and educational affairs any different than what Rhee and the philanthropic foundations who donated multi-millions of dollars to DCPS did to shakedown the teachers union and try to buy a mayoral election? Both situations appear to trample on the sovereignity of the District and hold hostage the voices of the people.

As I see it, at least Congress is trying to give parents another alternative in this poor performing school district. Over a year ago, DC Democratic leadership took the gutless route and opted NOT to fight to retain educational vouchers for students when they had the chance. Rhee's seemingly clandestine operation with the foundations tampered with the integrity of elections and voter rights. As we know, that strategy backfired because it touched on a fundamental right (voting) of US citizens everywhere.

What DC needs are elected officials with some backbone that stand by their convictions -- especially stances that reflect a true connection to the pulse of the people. Contrary to their own beliefs, our elected officials DO NOT know what's best for DC residents.

Posted by: bdoc1 | February 18, 2011 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Mayor Gray is finding that the financial support and incentives that can provide desperately needed help to our city's beleaguered school children can also become an unpredictable economic minefield. Valerie Strauss is correct when she writes, "No district can make real, sustained improvements without knowing from year to year that it will have sufficient resources."

But ... modern school reform policy rarely comes without potentially dangerous strings attached. This past year we have entered into a DCPS teacher contract with conditional funding from private sources that threaten to withdraw support if there is "a change in leadership."

We have been awarded $75 million in Race to the Top (RttT) money that is also contingent on the adoption of many school policies that may hurt more than help, while U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems comfortable suggesting to mayor Gray that Kaya Henderson should become Chancellor for the next ten years.

In consideration of this latest form of blackmail imposed by Congress, many D.C. residents have lost hope that resistance to such demands is in the best interest of their children. Mayor Gray has found himself in a very difficult position, as many of his supporters agree with his arguments, but fear the consequences.

One person that I have very high regard for wrote this, "A man who stands on his principles sometimes finds very poor footing." So ... should we bend over and grab our ankles?

It is no wonder why many capable and principled people stay out of politics; and why our youngest citizens learn this even before they have the right to vote. More than most high school Civics lessons, this intimate example will demonstrate to students how well, or how poorly our democratically elected leadership and our "free press" defend our rights and interests. Sadly, yesterday, the Washington Post editorial board has come down squarely against representative democracy once again.

History shows that the slippery slope of appeasement has led to some incredible rationalizations that weaken and/or destroy our confidence in democracy.

Seriously ask yourself; where will this all end? And, at what point it is worth taking a stand? The powerful interests backing many destructive forms of modern school reform have a long-term incremental strategy that will not cease, except for those people who are prepared to defend our fundamental liberties and right of self governance.

But, talk is cheap.

Posted by: AGAAIA | February 19, 2011 2:05 AM | Report abuse


You make a compelling and thoughtful argument. But there is another side to it....

The Post editorial on the voucher program, was as usual, more than a little convoluted. The editorial writer makes an attempt to be persuasive by citing Kevin Chavous, who is an ardent advocate, absent any research foundation, for charter and voucher programs.

The Post logic (okay, illogic) seems to be that even if there isn't any evidence that vouchers and charters work, let's just take the word of a guy who likes them as some kind of proof that they're good.

As Valerie Strauss points out, a study by the Department of Education concluded that there is no evidence that the DC voucher program works. So, there's no factual data for the Post editorial writer(s) to work with...none. Of course, when it comes to education, the Post doesn't typically let facts get in the way of its incessant opining for the business-model of "reform," which it must be noted, pays off quite handsomely for Kaplan, the Post's golden goose test-prep services and for-profit education company.

Even though Republicans in Congress, ever the hypocrites, are meddling in local affairs and have threatened to take money from the DC schools and do serious harm to thousands of children and parents and teachers, the best response the Post is now capable of is ""What's the harm?"

There was a time when the Washington Post was well-regarded for its thoughtful insightful opinions; opinions that were grounded in facts and embedded with ideas and principles of democratic citizenship. Those days are mostly gone. Now, the Post cannot or will not assume the role of advocate for the general welfare. It either does not grasp the serious harm posed by the Republican threat, or more likely, it chooses to simply ignore it. But it ignores a lot these days.

Yes, AGAAIA, politics can be a nasty, unfair, dishonest and often silly use and abuse of authority and power. As the old saying goes, the making of sausage isn't pretty either. But over time, democratic governance has been successful in promoting freedom and justice and opportunity for more people; it's been the process by which our nation has become more democratic.

People also have the freedom to be dogmatic, and stubborn, and mean, and self-absorbed, and greedy, and childish. For many people like that, the authority and power that go with government are to be used for personal gain and not for public benefit. People like that are always going to push "powerful interests." Other people have to push back. And it never really ends.

You say, AGAAIA, that someone wrote that a person who stands on principles gets poor footing. Maybe...but to paraphrase Martin Luther KIng "A person who stands for nothing will stand for anything."

And we already have far too much of that.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 19, 2011 7:49 AM | Report abuse

"U.S. legislators have some nerve telling the District government that Congress will probably cut funding for the city’s public schools if D.C. officials don’t revive a federal voucher program."

Is Valerie really so stupid that she thinks it's up to DC officials to "revive" the "federal voucher program"? Guess what: the voucher program is FEDERAL. It was enacted as part of a logrolling deal where 1700 DC kids got vouchers, and the DC public schools got more federal money. All that legislators have said is that if CONGRESS -- not "DC officials" -- doesn't reenact the federal voucher program, that would jeopardize the entire deal that was struck.

It's cynicism of the most brazen sort to demand, as Valerie does, that DC public schools should get to keep the extra money (they're already the best-funded school district in the nation, keep in mind) even if the DC voucher program is canceled and the very premise for giving public schools extra money goes away.

Posted by: educationobserver | February 19, 2011 8:51 PM | Report abuse

You can argue the specifics of the D.C. voucher deal until the cows come home. But here's the money quote from this blog:

"The fight over the vouchers is another example of the thoughtless, piecemeal way that this country makes school-funding decisions."

Thoughtless and piecemeal. Education in America.

Posted by: nflanagan2 | February 21, 2011 12:39 PM | Report abuse

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