The House has kicked off debate on reauthorizing Washington, D.C.’s federally funded private school choice program, foreshadowing future debates on any larger-scale school choice program put forward by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over Washington, D.C., approved the bill on Friday morning, after debating it Wednesday. Democrats’ amendments to change how research is done to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, as well as include additional anti-discrimination protections for LGBT students and students with disabilities, were rejected on party lines.
DeVos, a longtime proponent of private school choice programs, stumbled over those issues, in particular the rights of students with disabilities, during her Senate confirmation hearing in January. Trump campaigned on putting $20 billion in federal funds into expanded school choice programs, including vouchers.
The D.C. program, which began in 2004, gave scholarships to 1,154 low-income students this school year to attend private and parochial schools. It costs about $20 million annually and provides students up to $12,679 for private high school tuition or $8,452 for elementary and middle school.
The bill that passed Friday would authorize the program annually through 2022 at the same funding level, though appropriations committees will ultimately decide how much money it receives.
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The bill would also continue a requirement, instituted last year, that schools receiving the scholarship be accredited. Washington Post reporters in 2012 found students using the scholarships at a variety of unaccredited, unconventional schools.
Democrats attempted, unsuccessfully, to change the law to include a provision prohibiting participating private schools from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
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“This committee is clearly divided on the merits of private school vouchers, but to those who feel vouchers are necessary to provide opportunities to students in struggling schools, surely we must require those opportunities be available to all students,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Democrat of New Jersey, who sponsored the amendment.
Rep. Gary Palmer, Republican of Alabama, said the amendment “introduces unnecessary controversy into a bill designed to help children achieve academic success.”
The issue is currently “enmeshed in litigation,” he said, referring to the pending case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy at the center of a debate over Title IX and transgender students’ rights to use facilities matching their gender identity. Title IX applies to all schools that receive federal funding, but there are some exemptions for religious schools.
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Rep. Mark Desaulnier, Democrat of California, also attempted to add language providing additional protections for students with disabilities. Republicans said the amendment was not needed because the law makes it clear that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — the law that tripped up DeVos and ensures special education students receive the services they need — applies to schools participating in the program.
The bill would allow scholarships for D.C. students no matter the type of school they previously attended and would permit participation by children who previously were part of the control group in a study comparing the outcome of students who received vouchers with those who applied but were not chosen.
It also would change the bill’s research standards going forward.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, offered an amendment to restore the program evaluation requirements to what they were in the original law — the “strongest possible” research design — instead of the new language, which allows a “quasi-experimental research design” that doesn’t use a control group of students who applied for the program but did not receive a scholarship.
“One can’t help but draw the conclusion that the evaluation standard has been weakened, possibly for a reason,” Connolly said.
Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, who chairs the Oversight Committee and sponsored the bill, said the research standard was changed to make sure interested students aren’t excluded from the program just because they were once part of a control group.
About 3,900 students applied for a scholarship this school year — some 2,745 more than received one. If more children apply than can be served, officials use a lottery to award the scholarships, with preferences given to students who had scholarships the year prior, their siblings, and children attending poor-performing public schools.
Choice vs. local control
Republicans and Democrats sparred over whether the program works.
Research from 2010 found participating students had a higher high school graduation rate than students who applied for the program but didn’t receive a scholarship (82 percent versus 70 percent).
“We want all children to get a great education, and I cannot understand why anyone would be opposed to a program that has so well proven itself, particularly when it’s helping so many minority students,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, who is also the chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee.
Participating in the program didn’t, however, raise students’ test scores.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting representative to Congress, said the program has “failed its central purpose” to improve academic achievement. The program is “patently unnecessary” because Washington has a robust public school choice system, with a healthy charter sector and extensive choice within the traditional public school system, she said. About 45 percent of the 87,000 students in D.C. public schools attend a charter school.
There’s also the thorny issue of local control.
Congress has a great deal of say over Washington, D.C.’s local affairs. Democrats and local leaders say it’s hypocritical for Republicans, who praise local control for the states, to meddle in D.C.’s affairs, including education, gun control, abortion rights, and medically assisted suicide.
“When Republicans cannot pass controversial national legislation, they instead abuse their power over a jurisdiction they view as defenseless,” Norton said, asking why the Education Committee wasn’t considering a nationwide voucher bill.
Republicans say the Constitution gives them the authority and responsibility for overseeing the capital city.
The scholarship program has divided local D.C. leaders, all of whom are Democrats or liberal independents.
Mayor Muriel Bowser supports reauthorizing the program, which also provides federal funds for D.C.’s traditional public and charter schools.
Eight of the 13 members of the D.C. city council signed a letter to Chaffetz expressing their “staunch opposition” to continuing the program. Students already receiving vouchers should continue to do so until they finish high school, but no new students should be admitted, they said.
The bill will go to the House floor in the coming weeks, and it will also need to go through the Senate, where a companion bill hasn’t yet been introduced. President Obama opposed the program, but leaders of Serving Our Children told The Washington Post they expect to add “hundreds of new students” next year on the expectation that Trump will push for additional funds for the program. His budget proposal is expected next week.