To the dismay of members of the D.C. Council, a D.C., the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) program has been slated to continue for at least another five years. The SOAR legislation provides vouchers to D.C. residents and is the only federally-funded voucher in the country. But what may appear to be a beneficial alternative faces staunch opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), and D.C. Council members, including David Grosso (D-At-large), who believe it undermines the integrity of the District’s public school system.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is an opponent of the SOAR legislation because it takes more money away from public schools. (Courtesy photo)

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is an opponent of the SOAR legislation because it takes more money away from public schools. (Courtesy photo)

In a statement released on the heels of the March 10 vote to renew, the ACLU acknowledged an opposition to the legislation based on its inability to ward off discriminatory practices. “Eighty percent of students who participate in the voucher program attend private religious schools that operate outside the non-discrimination provisions of the DC Human Rights Act. Voucher programs expose students in the District to discrimination, particularly on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or religion,” the release stated. “This is an assault on the long-standing principle of equal treatment for all students.”

The American Federation for Children, an advocacy group founded by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, noted during the hearing and vote that SOAR offers an “educational lifeline” for low-income families. For city leaders, however, SOAR vouchers funnel approximately $20 million a year in federal taxpayer dollars to private schools in the District.

In a statement to the House panel, Norton, a staunch opponent of SOAR, said while the voucher program suggests District residents have limited school choices, parents have access to “robust” alternatives. “Almost 50 percent of public school students attend charter schools, and 75 percent of public school students attend out-of-boundary schools that they have chosen,” said Norton.

Additionally, the nation’s largest teachers’ group, the National Education Association, has opposed SOAR on the grounds it diverts funds from public to private schools at a time when sequester-level budget cuts are hurting students. “Despite ample evidence that the Congressionally-imposed voucher program is ineffective, and while D.C. public schools improve every year, some members of Congress continue to see our city as their personal etri dish. With the new administration and leadership in the Department of Education, it is even clearer that our public education system is and will remain under attack,” Grosso said in a letter to the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

Grosso, who serves as chairperson of the Committee on Education, said he found it insulting to Washingtonians that Congress would push a personal agenda on the city, with the express opposition of city officials. “Attacking D.C. home rule, including any expansion of the voucher program, is irresponsible governing on the part of Congress. Rather than siphoning public dollars into private ventures, we should continue the progress made in our public schools – both traditional and charter – that will put every child in the District of Columbia in the best position to succeed,” the statement said.

Despite Grosso’s letter of opposition, which also was signed by Councilmembers Anita Bonds (D-At-large), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), and Elissa Silverman (I-At-large), a House committee advanced the bill on March 10 to renew SOAR. The legislation will next go to the full House for a vote.