Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide $100 million to restart and expand the failed D.C. school voucher program. Sponsored by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), the House voted 225-195 in favor of the bill, mostly along party lines, with one Democrat voting for it and nine Republicans against it. In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Obama Administration voiced strong opposition to the bill, indicating that it opposed school vouchers and that money should instead be used to improve public schools.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program—the failed voucher program that this bill would restart—has a number of significant problems. First and foremost, studies by the U.S. Department of Education show that the voucher program does not improve students’ academic performance, so the program fails to achieve its main purpose. Additionally, a study by the Government Accountability Office found that many of the schools in the program were not accredited or did not meet the requirements for operating in D.C. Also, students from schools that were in need of improvement were underrepresented in the program, meaning that it also failed to serve the population it was designed to serve.
In addition to these concerns, the bill raises serious questions regarding separation of church and state, since the majority of students in the program (roughly 80%) attend religiously affiliated schools. This means that taxpayer money is being used to fund religious education. Private schools are also allowed to discriminate based on religious affiliation, gender, and any number of other factors, meaning that the government is also funding discrimination. As Rev. Welton Gaddy, President of the Interfaith Alliance and State of Belief host, notes, “Though religious schools provide an important service to many students and families… public funds should not go to private religious schools or to any educational institutions that may discriminate against students and teachers based on religion.”
The government should be using this voucher money to improve public school education for all, rather than giving a select few students grants, particularly when D.C. residents oppose the program to begin with, as evidenced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D-D.C.) vocal opposition and survey results which show that nearly 90% of D.C. residents voted against vouchers in the past. Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United Executive Director, said, “A $100 million congressional giveaway to religious and other private schools is not going to help reduce the budget deficit. This wastes taxpayer dollars and undermines the public schools.”
Fortunately, the bill seems unlikely to pass on a stand-alone vote in the Senate. However, if it is attached to another vote (like the budget) as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) hopes, it might gain enough votes to pass, and it is currently uncertain whether or not President Obama would veto the bill. We will be monitoring the situation closely and will let you know as the situation in the Senate develops.