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Policy Communiqué

Congress Approves Experimental D.C. Voucher Program  

Table of Contents  

Finally, an educational reform program that would establish an experimental school-voucher program in the District of Columbia (D.C.) worth $40 million annually for the next five years was approved on January 22, 2004, by the Senate by a 65-28 vote.  

To help pay for a private-school education, the plan would allow at least 1,700 poor D.C. public school students to receive vouchers worth as much as $7,500 each.  Students eligible for the program, must be admitted to a private school and must cover costs exceeding their vouchers.  

After the Senate vote, voucher opponents gathered on Capitol Hill and announced that prior to going into effect in September, they have plans to repeal the voucher provision.  

Senator Edward M Kennedy (Democrat-Massachusetts) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (Democrat-D.C.) said at the rally that they would attempt to repeal the voucher program and send the money to public schools.  Senator Kennedy said, “Even after this vote, don't bank on vouchers coming to D.C.”  

In December, the measure, part of an omnibus spending package passed in the House of Representatives by a 209-208 vote, now heads to President Bush, who has indicated he would sign it into law.  Unfortunately, six years ago President Clinton vetoed a similar D.C. voucher bill.  

Funding for the voucher scholarship program will be $13 million annually.  Also, the measure will provide $13 million to support existing charter schools and create five new charter schools in the District; $13 million for teacher training and recruitment; and improving student achievement via tutoring and public school choice.  Finally, to pay for the administrative cost the remaining $1 million will be allocated.  

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Program Eligibility  

Eligible for annual grants of up to $7,500 to cover tuition, fees and transportation expenses to attend a private-school in the District are D.C. children in families whose household income does not exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty line which is for  a family of four about $36,000.  

For students already in private schools, vouchers will also be made available.  However, priority will be given to students in low-performing D.C. public schools identified as such by guidelines set forth by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.  Although, school officials expect the number to increase, there have been 15 such schools identified as of last summer.  

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Administrating the Voucher Program  

An organization to administer the voucher program will be selected by Education Secretary Rod Paige and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.  To be eligible, the organization must be a nonprofit group, a consortium of nonprofits or an “educational entity” of the District, such as the school board or the D.C. state education office.  Also, the Education Secretary and the Mayor will determine such details as teacher quality criteria and “strong accountability measures” for student progress, according to the Congressional legislation.  

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 Selection Process  

The selection process must be random if there are more applicants than the program can accommodate according to the legislation.  Thus, students may be selected, weighted to favor children in low performing D.C. public schools, through a lottery.  

For admission to a private school, a voucher student will not have to compete with other children for admission.  Private school participation in the program will agree to set aside a certain number of spaces for voucher students according to the United States (U.S.) Department of Education.  

To participate in the program, schools will be barred from discriminating on the basis of race, sex or national origin and have to demonstrate that they are “financially responsible.”  

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First Federally-Funded Voucher Program  

The District public schools are comprised of about 79,000 students that include an estimated 14,000 in publicly funded but independently operated charter schools.  The program will be highly scrutinized by education analysts, activists and many others on both sides of the issues although experiments in vouchers will affect only a minute number of students.  

In Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Colorado where there is a legal challenge, publicly funded voucher programs have been developed.  However, the District's program differs from these in that it is the only one that will be administered by the U.S. Department of Education and is the first to receive federal funding.  

Expected to attract the most students is the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.  By fall it is estimated it will have available 1,378 slots, most of them in elementary schools.  

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D.C. Per-Pupil Spending  

Senator Kennedy, at the voucher rally on Capitol Hill after the Senate vote said he wants to repeal the voucher program and send the money instead to the D.C. public schools.  However, one will soon learn that the poor academic performance displayed by the D.C. public schools is not related to insufficient funding.  For every pupil in membership in 2000-2001, the 50 states and the District of Columbia spent on average $7,376.  From the previous school year ($6,911 in unadjusted dollars) this represented a 6.7 percent increase per student.  The District of Columbia, which comprises a single urban district, spent $12,046 per pupil.  In comparison, three states spent less New Jersey ($11,248), New York ($10,716) and Connecticut ($10,127).  

Although the District of Columbia spends this enormous sum on a per pupil basis on education, their student performance academically on national assessment examinations in math and reading is abysmal.  

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Cost of Private-School Tuition  

The median per student cost for private elementary schools in the District is $4,500 annually according to a Cato Institute survey.  Yearly tuition of $10,000 or more was found in slightly more than a third of D.C. private schools.  Also, tuition at 60 private schools is less than $3,200 and less than $4,000 at 28 other schools indicated the National Center for Policy Analysis.  

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D.C.'s Abysmal Test Scores  

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) issued in November its first mandatory report since the No Child Left Behind Act established the NAEP exams as the standard against which state-adopted tests would be judged.  

Tragically, unable to read even at the substandard basic level were 69 percent of D.C. fourth graders (compared to 38 percent nationally) and 53 percent of D.C. eighth graders (compared to 28 percent nationally.)  The percentage of D.C. fourth grade students able to read at the proficient level has remained an atrocious 10 percent reflecting no improvement at all since 1992.  Sixty-four percent of D.C. fourth graders (compared to 24 percent nationally) and 71 percent of eighth graders (compared to 33 percent nationally) performed below the basic level in math.  

Unable to read at the proficient level in 2003 were 90 percent of D.C. fourth and eighth grade students.  And in math, 93 percent of D.C. fourth graders and 94 percent of eighth graders performed below the proficient level.  

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D.C. Catholic School Children Perform Better in Math  

After holding demographic and socioeconomic factors constant Catholic school children perform better in math than their public school counterparts found a study of African-American Catholic and public school children in Washington, D.C.  In math, Catholic school children performed better than their public school counterparts.  The performance gap between public and Catholic school students increased considerably between the fourth and eighth grades.  Compared to public school children, fourth grade Catholic school students increased considerably between the fourth and eighth grades.  Compared to public school children, fourth grade Catholic school students scored 6.5 percent higher and by eighth grade increased to over 8.2 percent.  Compared to their public school peers, the average eighth grade African-American Catholic school student in Washington, D.C. outscored 72 percent of their public school peers.  

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Academic Excellence Through Vouchers  

Pundents of school vouchers continue their mantra that vouchers take funds away from public schools.  For example, at the anti-voucher rally on Capitol Hill Senator Kennedy indicated that he would attempt to repeal the voucher program and send the money back to the public schools.  However, what he fails to realize as does other opponents of vouchers is that public schools receive the same money per child as before yet the schools would have fewer children to educate.  

A Cato Institute survey indicated that the median per pupil cost for private elementary schools in the District is $4,500 annually which is significantly lower than the $12,046 per pupil spent by the District of Columbia educating public schools students.  Thus if the savings incurred by a student attending a private-school were put back into the public schools, the District would actually have more money to spend per child.   

Unfortunately, the District of Columbia is just another example that there is little if any correlation between academic performance and higher per-pupil spending in schools which has increased almost 100 percent after inflation, class size which has declined more than 20 percent, and most teachers' increased educational training (master's degree), as school performance has deteriorated and stagnated over the last twenty years.  

A recent study has demonstrated that poverty and low school achievement do not have to be synonymous. For example, despite serving poor children, the state of Illinois and Northern Illinois University highlighted 27 schools that produced high test scores.  

Last year, at least 60 percent of students met state standards in reading and math though more than 50 percent of the students at the 27 schools are considered low-income.  

Also, the “adequate yearly progress” required under the federal No Child Left Behind law was met by all groups of students at those schools which included special education, different racial and ethnic groups and bilingual children.  

A set of common characteristics that included strong leaders, an emphasis on early literacy, high quality professional development and more learning time was found by the Northern Illinois University researchers examining the schools.  

The creation of private school vouchers in the District of Colombia returns power and dollars to the parents.  Studies have demonstrated that true school choice inspires excellence and is integral to accountability. Also it enhances a students' ability to strive for academic excellence.  

The poor performance of the D.C. public schools, as well as the poor academic achievement of its students, can only be reversed by fundamental reform centered around school choice and deregulation.  The Districts' school voucher experiment must hold school administrators accountable for the taxpayers' money and children, yet allow for the schools' independence.  There is no doubt that crucial to a good education is parental choice and school autonomy.  However, essential to educational reform and to making this experimental voucher program a success is a serious system of accountability for teachers and schools as well as a clear mission and strong standards.  

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End Notes  

  1.  “A Primer on the Vouchers.” The Washington Post. [cited 23 January 2004].
  2. Archibald, George, and Lively Tarron. “Voucher program approved for D.C.” The Washington Times. [cited 24 January 2004].
  3. “Disturbing test scores.” The Washington Times. [cited 20 November 2003].
  4. Grossman, N. Kate. “Poor students buck trend at 27 schools.” Chicago Sun-Times. [cited 7 November 7, 2003].
  5. Hsu, S. Spencer, and Blum, Justin. “D.C. School Vouchers Win Final Approval.” The Washington Post. [cited 23 January 2004].
  6. Johnson, A. Kirk, Ph.D. ”Comparing Math Scores of Black Students in D.C.'s Public and Catholic School.” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA 99-08, October 7, 1999.
  7. Moe, E. Terry. “How Vouchers Will Enrich Public Schools.” The New York Times. [cited 24 January 2004].
  8. The Educational Statistical Quarterly: Vol.5, Issue 2, 2003: Elementary and Secondary.  Available from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/quarterly/5_2/q3_7.asp#H1

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