As D.C. Voucher Bill Passes House, Norton to Continue Fight to Improve Failing Program

Oct 21, 2015
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), in opposing a bill to reauthorize the District of Columbia private school voucher program, today tried to protect students who are already in the program by allowing every current voucher student to remain until their graduation.  Norton’s objection to the bill, which passed 240-191, with eight Republicans voting against it and only two Democrats for it, was the program’s failure in its basic mission to improve the math and reading scores of D.C. voucher students.  The bill, introduced by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), was never in jeopardy, so Norton looked for ways to improve it.  Republicans did not have an answer for the program’s failure to improve test scores, and instead cited graduation rates among voucher students, which did not take into account the considerable number of voucher students who dropped out or the rigor of the school’s curriculum or graduation requirements.

During the debate, Norton said that D.C. has a model school choice program.  She cited that “75 percent of public school students attend out-of-boundary schools” and that “almost 50 percent of our public school students attend charter schools, which the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked as the strongest in the nation.”  Norton challenged Members on whether children in their district attend out-of-boundary schools in such large numbers, and whether their districts could match D.C.’s 115 public charter schools.  In addition, Norton said test scores for D.C. public schools and public charter schools have improved significantly since the voucher program was first established in 2004, while scores of voucher students have shown no improvement.  Norton said Republican Members will have some explaining to do when they go home about why they have proposed to cut $2 billion from K-12 public schools across the nation this year, while providing $100 million for private school vouchers in D.C.

Norton offered a two-part amendment to the program.  The first part would have restored the integrity of the program’s evaluation by reinserting the randomized control study, instead of what the bill describes as “an acceptable quasi-experimental research design.”  Republicans removed the mandated evaluation’s control study, the scientific gold-standard, apparently because they could not explain the evaluation’s findings that the program failed to improve test scores.  The second part of Norton’s amendment would have made it harder for voucher mills to compete with quality accredited schools, such as D.C.’s Catholic schools, for vouchers.  Almost all the voucher mills started up after the voucher program was authorized, and many are exclusively or largely comprised of voucher students.  Some of Norton’s Republican colleagues in the House have said they are willing to work with her on voucher mills, and she will be working with her allies in the Senate to restore the control study in the program’s evaluation as well.

Norton’s statement, as prepared for delivery, is below.

Floor Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

H.R. 10

October 21, 2015

I did not expect to be on the floor today managing this bill.  Ironically, I was scheduled to host a briefing today for Members and staff on the constitutionality of District of Columbia statehood, where I was going to show a 17-minute clip from HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that lampoons Congress for denying D.C. residents voting rights, budget and legislative autonomy, and statehood.  Instead, I am here on the floor in a virtual reality show, not speaking about the right to self-government, but fighting this latest attempt by the Republican Congress to impose its ideology on D.C. residents.  I ask that the D.C. Council’s letter opposing this bill be included in the record.

Yet, I have sought a compromise that should be acceptable to Republicans, as it is to President Obama.  We support allowing our current D.C. voucher students to remain in the program until graduation, which would ensure D.C. would have voucher students for many years to come.  That is the kind of sensible compromise that Congress must get back to, or be content with the label “least productive Congress,” as it has come to be known each year under this majority.  Instead, this bill goes beyond the compromise we have offered by seeking to admit new students as well. 

We are here so that Speaker John Boehner has a capstone to his political career.  The D.C. voucher program is his pet project, not ours.  He has introduced only two bills this Congress, a bill on the Iran nuclear agreement, and this bill.  

Even if Members do not respect D.C.’s right to self-government, they should at least care whether the program improves academic achievement, which was the stated reason for vouchers in the first place.  Far from helping students, however, the program has demonstrably failed.  According to the congressionally-mandated evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, the program has failed to improve academic achievement, as measured by objective math and reading testing scores.  Most important, the program has not had “significant impacts” on the achievement of students who the program was designed to most benefit, those who previously attended low-performing public schools.  The majority cites improved high school graduation rates.  However, the evaluation did not examine dropout rates, the rigor of the schools’ curriculum, or graduation requirements.  The majority also cites high college attendance rates.  However, the evaluation did not conclude that the program improved college attendance rates.    

  Even if the program were successful, it still would not be needed, least of all in the District, which has perhaps the most robust public school choice program in the country.  Almost 50 percent of our public school students attend charter schools, which the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked as the strongest in the nation.  In addition, 75 percent of public school students attend out-of-boundary schools.  What D.C. has developed amounts to a model for choice in education.

Moreover, the D.C. public schools (DCPS) have made some of the most impressive improvements in the country by any measure, spurred by competition from rapidly growing D.C. charter schools, not from the small voucher program.  In fact, a 2013 assessment of D.C. public schools indicated that the District had the greatest improvement of any urban district in the nation. 

D.C. charter schools have even higher educational achievement and attainment than DCPS.  D.C. charter schools outperform DCPS across traditionally disadvantaged groups, including African-American and low-income students, and have a higher percentage of such students, precisely the students the voucher program was ostensibly designed to serve.  Greater confidence in D.C. public schools is clear: D.C. public school enrollment has increased for seven consecutive years.

If Congress wants to support D.C. students, we ask that you support our home-rule public school choice, not impose yours.  Any new 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 program.  D.C. residents, not unaccountable Members of Congress, know best what our children need and how to govern our own affairs.

During this debate, we will consider an amendment I have offered to restore the scientific integrity of the program’s evaluation and to crack down on voucher mills.  Given that the Speaker’s bill will pass, I want to work with Members who support vouchers to ensure that our voucher students attend high-quality schools, like our accredited Catholic and other parochial schools, not fly-by-night, often storefront schools in low-income neighborhoods that were opened only after the voucher program was created because of the access to federal funds.  I appreciate that the majority indicated in committee and on the floor that they also want to prevent voucher mills.  I look forward to continuing to work with them as this bill moves forward to protect our families from voucher mills.

Under the Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress gave D.C. authority to establish its own education system, and unlike some other jurisdictions, D.C. has never created a voucher program.  Instead, like many D.C. bills in Congress, this bill seeks to impose a program on the District that does not have national support.  Just three months ago, both the House and Senate defeated several Republican national private school voucher amendments on the floor.  Members rejected private school vouchers for their own constituents, but want to impose them on mine.  No wonder.  Since 1970, every referendum to establish state-funded vouchers or tuition tax credits has failed by large margins.  Now, the House is trying to do to the District what it has shown it would not dare do at home.