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Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

Representing the District of Columbia

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Norton Releases Opening Statement for Markup of D.C. Private School Voucher Reauthorization, Wednesday

Mar 7, 2017
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today released an advance copy of her prepared opening statement ahead of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (OGR) markup of a bill to reauthorize the District of Columbia private school voucher program tomorrow, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, at 10:00 a.m., in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.

In her opening statement, Norton said that while she opposes the reauthorization bill, she supports current voucher students remaining in the program until they graduate high school, a compromise rejected by Republicans.

Norton noted the hypocrisy of reauthorizing private school vouchers for the District despite the lack of support in Congress for a national voucher program, pointing out that “last Congress, during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the House and Senate voted on several national voucher amendments, and each failed.”

Norton said that the D.C. Council has had the authority to create a voucher program since the 1970s, but has never chosen to do so.  Instead, the city has built a robust public school choice system in which “50 percent of public school students attend charter schools, and 75 percent of public school students attend out-of-boundary schools that they have chosen.”  She also noted a letter sent to the Committee today by a majority of the D.C. Council (8 of 13 members) “opposing the admission of new students into the voucher program, and requesting that any funding be given to D.C. public and charter schools instead.”

Norton’s opening statement, as prepared for delivery, follows.

Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Markup of SOAR Reauthorization Act
March 8, 2017

 

            I welcome my constituents in the audience.  As a mother, I have no criticism of parents who seize any and every educational opportunity available to their children.  I believe that the current voucher students should remain covered by the program until they graduate high school, a compromise offered by then-President Obama, but rejected by Republicans.  Republicans used to know how to compromise on vouchers.  Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich wanted to create a voucher program in the District of Columbia.  I told him that D.C. already had a few charter schools, and we worked together instead on legislation to create the present-day charter school system in D.C., which is considered the best in the country.

            The most interesting question today is why Republicans consider the D.C. voucher program necessary.  Since President Trump, Education Secretary DeVos and the Republican leadership all strongly support vouchers, why is the education committee not marking up a voucher bill for the country today?  The answer, of course, is that there is limited support for 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. 

            Republicans have controlled the House since 2011, but have never brought a national voucher bill to the floor.  Last Congress, during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the House and Senate voted on several national voucher amendments, and each failed.  Moreover, Congress has never authorized the D.C. voucher program in the light of day.  When Congress first created the program (in 2004) and then reauthorized it (in 2011), it did so by adding the voucher bills as riders to appropriations bills.  Unlike the House, the Senate has never passed a stand-alone D.C. voucher bill.  Neither chamber wants to face its own constituents to explain why federal funds should go to private schools.

            A similar pattern played out just last month.  This committee passed a bill to nullify the District’s medical aid-in-dying bill, when other committees could have been marking up a bill to ban the procedure nationally.  Republicans are not going to bring a national ban to the floor, however.  Sixty-nine percent of Americans support the procedure, 24 House Republicans are from the six states where the procedure is legal, and Republicans tried but failed to ban the procedure nationally almost 20 years ago.     

            Since the 1970s, the D.C. government has had authority to create a voucher program, but it has never done so.  Yesterday, a majority of the D.C. Council (8 of 13 members) sent a letter to this committee opposing the admission of new students into the voucher program, and requesting that any funding be given to D.C. public and charter schools instead.  

            The three-sector funding in the bill only exists because, when the voucher program was created, I repeatedly pointed out that D.C. public and charter schools were the preferences of residents, and, to his credit, the Archbishop of Washington asked Congress to also give funding to D.C. public and charter schools.

            It is clear that Republicans do not take into account the views of the D.C. government or its residents.  In the first two months of this Congress, in addition to trying to nullify D.C.’s medical aid-in-dying bill, this committee has launched an investigation of D.C.’s program to support immigrants.  The House has also voted to permanently prohibit D.C. from spending its local funds on abortion services for low-income women, and a bill was introduced to eliminate D.C.’s gun laws.   

            The D.C. voucher program has failed its central purpose: it has not improved academic achievement, as measured by math and reading tests.  The program is also unnecessary.  I doubt that the district of any member of this committee has a more robust public school choice system than D.C.’s.  Public school choice in D.C. is unusually robust, and is offered to every child.  Almost 50 percent of public school students attend charter schools, and 75 percent of public school students attend out-of-boundary schools that they have chosen. 

            I appreciate that the bill makes one important improvement to the 2011 law.  It requires voucher schools to be accredited.  Remarkably, there were no accreditation requirements until Congress first imposed them in the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill.  I remain very concerned, however, that the bill does not prohibit schools that rely primarily on voucher students to exist—also known as voucher mills—from participating in the program, weakens the rigor of the evaluation of the program’s effectiveness and does not provide voucher students with the protection of federal civil rights laws. 

            I want to reassure my own constituents that, even if this bill is not enacted, which I believe is unlikely with Republicans controlling the executive and legislative branches, the Republican-led Appropriations committees have always funded the three sectors, and I fully expect them to continue to do so.  I continue to believe, however, that federal funding for education in the District should reinforce the hard work of our city, parents and residents, who have shown the nation how to build a fully accountable public school choice system. 

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