Congress Passes District School Voucher Bill
Local District leaders voice opposition

The rift between Washington, D.C. leaders and the federal government has deepened as the House of Representatives passed an initial committee markup for the Scholarship for Opportunity and Results Act, a federal school voucher program for D.C., on Wednesday.

The act was voted through by the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Wednesday, despite District leaders criticizing federal interference in the city.

SOAR, Washington D.C.’s federally funded school voucher program, provides vouchers to more than 1,100 low-income D.C. students to transfer from public schools to private schools. Since being passed by Congress in 2004, the program also has provided federal funding to traditional public schools and public charter schools in the District.

However, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s non-voting delegate to Congress, opposed the bill, saying the SOAR Program weakens the public education system and serves as a partisan grab by congressional the District to test a contentious policy on a community outside of their constituency.

“The most interesting question today is why Republicans consider the D.C. voucher program necessary in light of such a strong charter school alternative choice from the public schools,” Norton said. “There is very limited support for private school vouchers in the Congress and in the nation. When Republicans cannot pass controversial national legislation, they instead abuse their power over a jurisdiction they view as defenseless.”

President Donald Trump promised to expand state school voucher programs by $20 billion, while Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is also a champion of school voucher programs.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program, the central program that regulates the voucher funds within the District, faced mixed support among congressional leaders during the committee meeting.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) sponsored the bill, arguing that it provides educational opportunities for District students.

“Providing every possible opportunity for students to achieve the best education available ensures that the next generation is on a path to success,” Chaffetz said at the committee markup session. “This is exactly why this SOAR reauthorization act is so desperately needed for what it will do.”

House Democrats proposed amendments to ensure that private schools participating in the voucher program must obey civil rights laws and protect LGBTQ students and students with disabilities.

However, these amendments failed along party lines.

A majority of D.C. councilmembers have maintained their opposition to the program.

Councilmembers, including David Grosso (I-At Large), 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), sent a letter Tuesday to Chaffetz encouraging the committee to phase out the SOAR program, temporarily extending the program to allow students currently receiving vouchers to graduate from high school.

The councilmembers cited a U.S. Department of Education study on the effectiveness of the scholarships administered through the SOAR program, finding that the program has no effect on student achievement on math and English assessments.

“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 petri dish,” the letter reads. “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.”

The letter also references studies on school voucher programs from school systems in Ohio, Louisiana and Indiana. In each of the states, student scores on math and English assessments fell between 6 and 25 percent.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) Communications Director Kevin Harries said Bowser has been a long-time champion of the SOAR Act because it offers area students greater choice in pursuing their education and provides funds necessary to improving District of Columbia Public Schools.

“It will safeguard millions of dollars in federal funds the District currently receives for both DCPS and D.C. Public Charter Schools,” Harries wrote regarding SOAR in an email to The Hoya. “The legislation has been an asset in helping Washington, D.C., become the fastest improving urban school district in the country, with increasing enrollment and graduation rates. Her goal is to ensure we are doubling down on these successes and expanding opportunities to every child in the District.”

House Democrats proposed amendments to ensure that private schools participating in the voucher program must obey civil rights laws and protect LGBTQ students and students with disabilities. However, these amendments failed along party lines.

At a Feb. 2 press conference, Bowser argued the District has achieved a balance between charter school options and the traditional public school system.

“We have achieved a delicate balance that has worked for us,” Bowser said. “There’s enough choice for parents who want to go outside of their neighborhood schools and we have a robust investment in our traditional public neighborhood schools.”

Despite her support, Bowser maintained her opposition to increased federal government interference in local education policy as inappropriate.

“People who like to experiment with education have sometimes looked to Washington, D.C., as a place to try things,” Bowser said. “In my discussions with the president and people who are surrounding him regarding education policy, my message is, ‘We got it right in D.C.’”

Rachel Sotsky, the executive director of Serving Our Children, the organization that distributes OSP funds to District students, said she was glad to see a program extended that helps District students gain access to education.

“We believe it is important to reauthorize the program, and that the House bill is an excellent measure,” Sotsky wrote in an email to The Hoya.

The councilmembers also took issue with the committee’s interference into District policies, calling the congressional action a violation of the Home Rule Act of 1973, which grants the District the power to elect its own city council and pass legislation.

“It is insulting to our constituents that members of Congress, where D.C. has no voting representation, would push their personal agendas on our city in a way they could never do in their home states,” the letter reads. “Attacking D.C. Home Rule, including any expansion of the voucher program, is irresponsible governing on the part of Congress.

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