Norton Recognizes District Officials’ Concern with Potential Loss of Federal Funding for DCPS and Charter Schools, But Will Work to Improve Flawed D.C. Voucher Bill

Mar 9, 2016
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today released the following statement regarding a letter from District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser and eight D.C. Councilmembers to House and Senate leaders supporting the special federal education funding for D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools included in the Scholarships for Opportunities and Results (SOAR) Act, which also includes a private school voucher program in D.C.

“When the private school voucher program was first imposed on the District of Columbia against its will more than a decade ago, I opposed its passage, but I was able to get additional federal funding included as well for DCPS and D.C. public charter schools.  I argued that not only was DCPS significantly improving, but that the city had chosen its own alternative to its traditional public schools, its public charter school system, one of the largest in the country.

“What is still clear is that the carefully-crafted letter sent to House and Senate leaders did not endorse the congressionally-imposed private school voucher program.  Instead, District officials said their ‘support for the SOAR Act is rooted in the importance we place on the much-needed federal funding for [DCPS] and public charter schools.’  The letter goes into significant detail about the basis for their support, citing the federal funds in the SOAR Act for DCPS, including ‘to support initiatives that reward and increase retention of high performing teachers and principals’ and ‘attract more high quality teachers and principals.’  The letter takes special note of the fact that ‘DCPS enrollment is rising for the first time in decades’ by ‘attracting families back into the system.’

“In the same way, the District’s letter lays out the case for public charter school funding, which almost half of all D.C. public school students attend, noting that the District has 62 public charter schools on 115 campuses.  The letter says that federal funds in the SOAR act have ‘supported the acquisition, renovation, modernization, and expansion of charter school facilities in the District’ and have been used to ‘improve academic achievement, teacher and leader quality and recruitment.’  Notably, this week, the National Alliance for Public Charter School rated D.C. as the healthiest public charter school system in the nation.

“The District’s letter neither supports nor mentions any benefits of the private school voucher program.  This is undoubtedly because the U.S. Department of Education’s independent evaluation of the voucher program showed that it failed to improve academic achievement among voucher students, as measured by math and reading scores, which was the ostensible purpose for the creation of the voucher program.  Also lacking is any data on the number of students who left voucher schools and returned to public schools, which is believed to be considerable.

“The District makes clear that it was also motivated to write its letter because it fears the Educational Freedom Accounts Act, introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC), which would force D.C. to direct ‘local funds from DCPS and the public charter schools toward Education Savings Accounts for D.C. students who want to attend private schools.’  That bill is far worse for the District than the SOAR Act alternative, clearly because federal funds for DCPS and public charter schools are not provided.

“I should note that it is particularly ironic that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in his press release on the letter would cite this recent support from District officials when arguing for the voucher program’s reauthorization, when the Republican-controlled House and Senate rejected all amendments to establish national private school vouchers during last year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Of course, it is convenient for Speaker Ryan to cite the District’s support for the SOAR Act because of the funds the bill contains for DCPS and public charter schools, while at the same the Republican Congress has disregarded D.C.’s strong opposition to the many Republican riders and bills that appear each year that establish, overturn or block D.C.’s laws and its budget.

“The District’s concern at the loss of potentially $40 million annually for DCPS and public charter schools in the SOAR Act is understandable because these funds have been baked into its educational budget now for a number of years.  Recognizing this budgetary concern, and the certainty that the Republican House and Senate would seriously try to reauthorize the SOAR Act, or allow it to be funded without reauthorization, I tried in the House, and I will continue to try, to improve the voucher program by restoring the integrity of the program’s mandated evaluation, making it harder for voucher mills to compete with quality accredited schools, such as D.C.’s Catholic schools, for vouchers, and to ensure that the schools abide by federal civil rights laws.”