Photo by HowardLake on Flickr.
The Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), known informally as the DC school voucher program, was passed by Congress to subsidize private school attendance for low-income students in DC.
The goal is to provide opportunities for the low-income students to leave low-performing district schools to attend private schools. The program has passionate supporters who testified on its behalf on the Hill recently.
It has been the subject of a rigorous evaluation by the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, which found mixed results. The program had no impact on student test scores but a positive impact on graduation rates (82 person with a voucher offer graduating versus 70 percent in the control group).
So why is it a bad idea? There are three reasons.
1. DC is already a school choice Mecca. We’re the last places that needs the OSP.
A blogger for the National Review wrote that reauthorizing this program will “breathe life back into school choice in the nation’s capital.” Huh?
Poor kids in DC have a richer set of schools to choose from than almost any other city in the country. More than 40 percent of DC’s schoolchildren attend schools of choice, mostly through charter schools, but also through the public school choice program within DC Public Schools known as the Out of Boundary transfer program.
The array of options and degree of innovation in DC’s charter movement is stunning, ranging from a “Hospitality High” vocational high school to residential programs like SEED, from public policy themed schools like Cesar Chavez to a Chinese immersion International Baccalaureate elementary school.
We have KIPP schools, Lighthouse schools, and Friendship Academies. We have award-winning schools like the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia and E.L. Haynes in Petworth. We have bilingual schools like LAMB and Oyster. Parents clamor to get into popular DCPS schools like Stoddert in NW and the “cluster schools” on Capitol Hill.
And 19 new charter applicants are in the pipeline to be approved, expanding the choices even further. There is lots of room for improvement, but DC has an embarrassment of school choice riches.
2. The OSP lacks broad local support and political legitimacy.
Another problem with locating the voucher program in DC is that the site selection for the program is not dictated by a public policy need, but pure convenience. Because of a quirk on the US Constitution, Congress can legislate policy in the District of Columbia without seeking consent from its residents.
To be sure, there are strong local advocates for the OSP: families who stand to gain $7,500 per year, city leaders who want the extra funding for district and charter schools that comes with the program, and the supporters of the Catholic and other private schools whose tuition is offset by the scholarships.
These constituency groups would be created in any subsidy market. But why DC? And how much support does the program have from the broader community of residents and taxpayers in DC? We simply don’t know.
The locally elected City Council hasn’t voted on it. There has been no ballot referendum. The one locally elected representative to the Congress, non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, opposes the program. But none of that matters in the strange world of taxation without representation.
3. Public subsidies should come with public accountability.
It seems like a fair proposition that if a school receives public money it should be held accountable for results, even if it is not required to follow any of the regulations of a typical public school. That, in fact, is the premise behind charter schools.
Charters in DC do not have to hire unionized or even certified teachers. They do not have to use the same textbooks or curriculum as DCPS. They can innovate in their staffing models, their methods of instruction, and their school culture, carving out distinct identities and philosophies without seeking central office approval.
In exchange, they must demonstrate that they are teaching children the basic skills set forth in the DC state standards. They do so by participating in the state assessment system known as DC-CAS. They also cannot charge tuition or discriminate in their student admissions. Over-subscribed schools are filled by lottery.
On the other hand, Catholic schools and other private schools in DC do not have to keep up this end of the bargain. They are not accountable for the academic success of their students and they can use tuition and selective admissions to shape their student body as they wish.
Furthermore, unlike publicly funded schools, they can practice religion (80 percent of OSP students attended religious schools in 2008-2009). All of that is fine until they start accepting $7,500 per student through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. At that point, the schools become quasi-public entities but unlike charter schools, with no strings attached.
There are policy alternatives.
Providing educational opportunity for disadvantaged students is a critically important policy goal, but a voucher program in DC is not in the public interest. Instead, there are two policy options that OSP advocates might want to pursue.
First, if they want to keep the program alive, they should seek to move it to Ohio or Connecticut, the home state of the Congressional sponsors, or some other state where the voters can weigh in on whether school vouchers are a good policy and where you can demonstrate a real need to jumpstart school choice.
Second, if policymakers want to promote school choice and educational opportunities for disadvantaged students in DC, they should support policies that affect school site selection, affordable housing, and transportation, i.e. the factors that influence the commuting distance for low-income families and hence their access to school options.
Currently, it is very costly and difficult for charter schools to locate near the city center or near transit nodes. A much more direct method than vouchers for enhancing all forms of school choice would simply be to provide more school bus transportation and more generous facilities funding conditional on site selection that provides easy access to low-income communities.