The political wheels in the District of Columbia are churning up once again as House Republicans take jabs at Home Rule. Having stripped the congressional representative of voting power on the floor, and barring her from testifying on a bill that affects the District, Republicans have also introduced legislation to re-impose the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP).

In 2004, Congress instituted the experimental five-year pilot voucher program in the District, a move that was met by mixed reactions—as is this current legislation. As years went by and after millions of dollars were spent, independent studies of the D.C. voucher program, including a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), showed no significant increase in test scores compared to D.C. public school students. As a result, in 2009, the Democratic-controlled Congress voted to end further funding for the program—although it permitted currently enrolled voucher students to remain in their private schools until graduation. 

“Most District residents would much rather we focus on the quality of education for all of our children instead of things that have shown not to have a measurable effect,” said Iris Toyer, former chair of Parents United, a well-known educational advocacy group that lobbies for full funding of D.C. public schools.

Last Congress, the Senate defeated an amendment to reauthorize the program by a vote of 55-42. However, in a show of power, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)—both longtime supporters of school choice—have introduced legislation (H.R. 471 and S. 206) to sanction the voucher program again, with an added caveat that allows vouchers to families regardless of income.

In a statement, Boehner pointed to the benefits of the program, including a 2010 IES report that showed that the graduation rates for the Opportunity Scholarship students exceeded those of their public school counterparts by 12 percent.

Still, some question whether voucher funds wouldn’t be better spent on improving graduation and other outcomes at the city’s public schools.

“Vouchers have nothing to do with the education of children of D.C.,” said Toyer, a former elected D.C. Board of Education member. “It’s really about a ideology that the Republicans would like to use nationwide with public education that they would not be able to pass in their own respective jurisdictions.”

Since 1964, the Black Student Fund (BSF) has been helping students who wanted to attend private schools without government funding. The mission of the organization is to desegregate private schools. BSF opposed the voucher program. “We don’t want private schools to replace public schools. The current voucher program seems set out to destroy public schools,” said Walter Allen, academic advisor for the Black Student Fund.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that Boehner is ignoring both a compromise reached on this issue, and the home-rule public charter school alternative strongly preferred by District residents. “The District’s home-rule public charter school alternative has become a model for the nation,” she said, “and charter schools enjoy strong bipartisan support in Congress.”

Surprisingly, Mayor Vincent Gray and DC Council Chair Kwame Brown have differing opinions on the issue.

Aligning himself with Norton, Gray shares the same position of the Obama administration that students currently in the program should be allowed to complete it but no new public funds should go to private schools.

“The mayor’s position has not changed in the wake of new legislation. Gray opposes vouchers but he supports current recipients receiving them until they graduate from high school,” said Doxie McCoy, spokeswoman for the mayor. “The mayor feels strongly that this is a home rule issue and these decisions should rest with the residents of the District of Columbia.”

Brown, however, is in favor of vouchers. “Every parent should have options in choosing quality schools for their child to attend. My focus is making sure reform stays on track, so that every District school is a quality school,” said Brown.

Pro-voucher proponents agree. Virginia Walden Ford, 54, a northeast resident, wants parents to experience what she did when her youngest son attended a private school. “I support good public, charter and private schools. When there are not enough seats in the good public and charter schools, parents need another choice. This is what the voucher program allows,” said Ford, an Independent voter.

Currently, there are 55 private schools that participate in the voucher program. The average tuition cost is $4,500 yearly. The voucher payment is $7,500 yearly. Parents can use the difference to fund books, uniforms and field trips, Ford said.

 

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO