House Passes Legislation to Extend DC Voucher Program to 2021

(Photo: dcJohn, Creative Commons)

(Photo: dcJohn, Creative Commons)

House Republicans have passed legislation that would extend the Washington, DC school voucher program to 2021.  The program is currently the only federally funded, private school voucher program available for K-12 students.

Passing on a 224-181 vote, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act (SOAR), will require $60 million each year to be split equally between the voucher program, public charter schools, and traditional public schools located within the District.

Some local DC leaders have criticized the program, arguing that it takes money and resources, as well as students, away from the public school system.  However, because federal funding for public schools is attached to the legislation, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and various council members have expressed their support for it, writing a letter to congressional leaders in March that said a reauthorization of the act is “critical to the gains that the District’s public education system has seen.”

The voucher program runs on the idea that students at all income levels should have the same access to all types of education, not just the public school system. Low-income families who qualify are given vouchers that they are then able to use at the private school of their choice.  In all, 1,442 students used vouchers in the 2014-15 school year in order to help pay the tuition at 47 local private schools.  Religious schools accounted for 80% of those vouchers, fueling the argument from critics that the vouchers are funding religious education.

Rep. Ted Lieu tried unsuccessfully to introduce the same bill, adding language that would protect children who use the vouchers from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

“Public schools have to take everyone,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who is a former public school teacher, said in an interview. “I didn’t have a choice over which students I got assigned. … What we are essentially allowing is for private schools to take public money and not to have to take everybody.”

Similar legislation was introduced last fall by former House Speaker John Boehner, who was looking to extend the program.  While that legislation passed the House, it did not make it passed the Senate, where it continues to sit.  His bill required participating private schools to be accredited within five years.  Meanwhile, the new bill says they must be accredited now, writes Perry Stein for The Washington Post.

Supporters of the new legislation are continuously pointing to research suggesting that 90% of voucher students graduate from high school, with close to the same percentage enrolling in some sort of higher education.  However, federal studies do not agree, saying that the program does not in fact lead to statistically significant academic gains.  At the same time, the Obama administration has worked to shut down the program.

“You have some families here that are in real dire straits,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a supporter of the bill. “There is a big D.C. bureaucracy that is not living up to expectations. This program is a life line.”

The new bill would also require some of the voucher students to take the same standardized tests in math and reading that students in public schools take, which would allow the federal government to compare the academic performance of each set of students.