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America’s failing urban public schools are in dire need of reform. About 7 percent of U.S. high schools account for over 50 percent of dropouts. In 2003, reading proficiency rates for eighth graders in six of the nation’s largest cities were barely in the double digits.

Since the 1950s, school voucher programs have grown more popular, especially in urban areas. In some cases, vouchers have improved educational performance; they have consistently offered parents freedom in directing their children’s education.

Opponents of vouchers have scrutinized the relationship of voucher programs to public education and the role of religious schools in such programs. Two weeks ago, the Senate voted to end the District of Columbia’s experiment with school vouchers by rejecting an appropriations bill amendment that would have continued federal funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was introduced in 2004. Technically, the D.C. Council can vote to renew the funding, but it is highly unlikely to do so.

Lacking concrete evidence that the vouchers will fail to produce results in D.C. in the long term, Congress should have extended the program. Vouchers still have something to contribute to D.C.’s public school system.

Vouchers provide parents with money to send their children to schools other than the public schools assigned to them; parents are typically free to choose schools that are private or public, religious or secular. The Supreme Court has historically upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers, most recently in 2002’s Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The decision held that vouchers used at religious schools do not violate the Establishment Clause as long as they do not favor any particular religion and give parents a “true private choice” in their children’s educational futures.

D.C.’s program provides up to $7,500 per year for some of the District’s poorest students to attend private schools. Under this program, taxpayers do not subsidize the typical Georgetown Preparatory School education – the program is geared toward poor, predominantly minority students who would otherwise have attended underperforming public schools. From 2004 to 2006, the average recipient household earned $17,356 per year. The same household had an average of three children.

When the Senate killed this program, it killed the opportunity for some of the District’s most disadvantaged students to escape a struggling public system. The decision will cost the District, too – D.C. schools save about $6,000 per student through the voucher system, because it spends about $13,500 yearly on each public school student.

The Senate should have continued the funding. We do not yet know how the voucher system impacts student learning: A U.S. Department of Education study evaluated the program after one year and found no significant differences in performance between voucher students and non-voucher students, but one year is not enough to judge whether or not the voucher system has improved or would improve student education.

We do not support school vouchers unconditionally: If public or charter schools teach students effectively, voucher programs should be dismantled. Unfortunately, D.C. public schools have given us little reason to believe this is the case. Until they do, vouchers should remain available to students in the District.

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