Dems are right to dump D.C.'s school voucher program

Republicans are up in arms over a Democratic move that might bring about the program's demise, but there's good reason to consign it to the trash heap.

Published March 11, 2009 12:40AM (EDT)

The federally funded program that provides about 1,700 Washington, D.C. school children with up to $7,500 in vouchers to attend private school may have just gotten its death blow. 

A provision in the omnibus spending bill that passed the Senate Tuesday evening requires re-approval of the program in order to extend it beyond the next school year. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., had offered an amendment to strip that language from the legislation, but on Tuesday, the Senate voted Ensign's proposal down, 50-39. As Democrats generally oppose school vouchers, the GOP fears -- probably correctly -- that this will mean the end of the program, as an extension likely wouldn't be able to pass when it comes up for a vote, if it's even allowed to go that far.

“In drafting this bill, Democrats put their political agenda ahead of educating our children. As a result, students who chose to leave a failing school and attend a better, safer school will have to return to the school they decided to leave,” Ensign said in a statement. “This is such a tragic situation.”

Ensign wasn't the only one bemoaning the potential end of the program. There's been a firestorm of criticism on the right over the issue, and people from other parts of the political spectrum have been advocating for the funding as well. Even President Obama's secretary of education, Arne Duncan, gave D.C. vouchers his limited blessing recently, saying that he opposes the idea generally, kids already in private schools because of the program should be allowed to remain.

But by all appearances, this experiment in school vouchers really should be allowed to die. Over its short life, the program proved almost entirely ineffective. Actually, its only real success was as a stimulus for D.C.'s beleaguered Catholic schools -- they, not the students, proved to be the vouchers' biggest beneficiaries. 

Obviously, there can be some benefit -- even just an emotional one, rather than something that can be measured -- to getting out of one of D.C.'s public schools, which can be a bad environment, and into a better one. But that assumes the students were getting out of the worst schools and into appreciably better ones, and that wasn't always the case. (In fact, kids who attended the city's worst schools were proportionally less likely to receive vouchers.) Moreover, when it came to academic performance, studies repeatedly showed no significant effect. The RAND Corporation summarized the Department of Education's first impact study of the program this way:

Because the program was oversubscribed, scholarships were awarded by lottery. To examine total program impact on student achievement, the study compared the results of lottery winners with those of lottery losers (regardless of whether the winners actually used their scholarships or whether the losers attended public schools). The authors found no impact, positive or negative, on average test scores in reading or math. Similarly, they found no impact of the effect of using a voucher to attend a private school on average reading or math test scores.

On top of that, the program was poorly run; it lacked proper oversight, and had some fairly obvious, and quite serious, flaws. Those were exposed in a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, which savaged the voucher system generally, along with the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF), which administered it. Among other problems, the GAO found that, in the 2004-2005 school year, "at least 3 of 52 schools that participated that year indicated that at least half of their teachers did not have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 6 schools indicated that about 10 to 20 percent of their teachers lacked at least a bachelor’s degree. Further, many of the schools were not accredited, and there is no evidence that they submitted evidence of educational soundness."

This would have been more forgivable if WSF hadn't provided parents with incomplete -- sometimes even inaccurate -- information about the schools to which they could apply. Because of this failure, the GAO concluded, "parents might have used opportunity scholarships to place their children in private schools that were less successful in raising achievement levels than the public schools their children previously attended." (My emphasis.)

Considering that voucher advocates often use "school choice" as their preferred term, the D.C. experience was tinged with a particularly bitter irony: Participating students had few options when picking the school they wanted to attend. "Some students who received scholarships had limited choices, particularly students in the upper grades and those who wanted to attend a secular school," the GAO report said. "For example, according to WSF data for school year 2005-2006, only about 70 openings were available at the high school level (compared to about 650 for students in kindergarten through grade 5 and about 200 for students in grades 6-8). The majority of scholarship students attending high schools went to one religious school... In addition, students who desired a secular school had a limited number to choose from, since most of the participating private schools were Catholic or Protestant, and these schools offered most of the openings."

Republicans have criticized people like President Obama and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who proposed the spending bill's voucher-killing language, for sending their children to private schools while voting against giving the same choice to other parents. There may be some validity to that argument, or at least an emotional appeal, especially because there are two students who receive vouchers who go to Sidwell Friends, the school Obama's children attend. But those kids are the exception, not the rule; for the most part, the GAO found, voucher recipients didn't get to go to schools like Sidwell that fall on the higher end of the tuition range.

"About 88 percent of all scholarship users attended schools with tuitions below the $7,500 cap," the GAO said. "Although tuition rates varied, only 3 percent attended the most expensive schools that charged $20,000 or more."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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