Norton Says D.C. Rejects Unsuccessful Private School Voucher Program While Choosing Public Charter Schools and Improved DCPS

Oct 8, 2015
Press Release

Norton Releases Opening Statement for Voucher Hearing, Friday

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 Committee (OGR) markup of a bill to reauthorize the District of Columbia private school voucher program tomorrow, Friday, October 9, 2015, at 10:00 a.m., in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.  Norton will offer an amendment to the bill at the markup, and will introduce for the record a letter opposing the bill signed by a majority of the D.C. Council, including Education Committee Chairman David Grosso (I-At Large).  The controversial program, which provides federal funds for low-income D.C. students to attend private schools in D.C., has been Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) main political pet project, and the reauthorization bill is being marked up a year before the program expires because of the Speaker’s retirement from Congress at the end of the month.  This is only the second bill Speaker Boehner has introduced this Congress.  The program was first imposed by Congress against the District’s will in 2004.  The authorization for the experimental five-year program expired in 2009, but was reauthorized for five more years in 2011, when Republicans took back control of the House.

In her opening statement, Norton will lay out a series of arguments against the program’s reauthorization, including its failure to meets its own stated goal of improving student academic achievement, its violation of D.C. home rule, its disregard of public charter schools—D.C.’s alternative choice for traditional public schools and the dramatic improvement in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) since the program was established more than a decade ago.

When Republicans established the voucher program, their major rationale was to improve the achievement of DCPS’ most disadvantaged students.  However, Norton, points out that independent studies of the program have demonstrated that it has “not improved the academic achievement of students as measured by math and reading test scores” and has not had “significant impacts” on the achievement of the most disadvantaged students, who the program was designed to benefit.  Beyond the program’s failure to improve academic achievement, Norton said D.C. residents have chosen public charter schools as their alternative to DCPS, with nearly 50 percent of D.C. public school students attending charter schools.  Norton said that, unlike voucher schools, public charter schools have outperformed DCPS in improving math and reading scores for D.C.’s most disadvantaged students.  Public charter schools have become so popular that there has been an overflow of applications and long waiting lists.  In addition, DCPS has improved so significantly that the city has recently had to place DCPS and public charter schools in the same lottery system.  Norton said if Republicans truly wanted to help D.C. students, they would direct their funding to charter schools to help reduce those waiting lists.

Norton cited as “the deepest irony” of the voucher reauthorization bill the House’s and Senate’s rejection in July of all amendments to establish national voucher programs as part of the bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Norton said the failure of those amendments demonstrates that there is no support nationally or in Congress for private school vouchers.

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

Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Markup of H.R. 10

October 9, 2015

First, I welcome my constituents in the audience.  As a mother, I understand and I applaud parents who seize every educational opportunity available to their children.  I don’t blame them.  Along with President Obama, I support allowing our current District of Columbia voucher students to remain in the program until graduation. 

However, this markup is for a new program that seeks to attract many new students as well.  This bill reauthorizes the program for five years, beginning in school year 2016-2017, even though a majority of the D.C. Council, including the chairman of the Education Committee, has submitted a letter to this committee in opposition to reauthorizing the program.  I ask that the Council letter be placed in the record of this markup.  Yet, this committee is rushing to consider a bill, which was just introduced on Monday, to reauthorize a program that does not expire until September 30, 2016, so that Speaker John Boehner has a capstone to his political career.  The D.C. voucher program is his pet project, not ours, while at the same time he has stood in the way of what D.C. residents have repeatedly requested from Congress--from budget and legislative autonomy, to voting rights, to statehood.  The Speaker has introduced only two bills this Congress, a bill on the Iran nuclear agreement, and this bill. 

Like so many partisan D.C. bills the city faces to further congressional Republican ideology, this bill seeks to impose a program on the District that does not have national support.  The deepest irony of the bill before us today is that both the Republican House and Senate just three months ago considered several national private school voucher amendments on the floor, and none of them passed.  This was not a surprise.  The reason, of course, is that since 1970 every state referendum to establish vouchers or tuition tax credits has failed by large margins.  Those states that use vouchers pay for them themselves, not with federal funds.  Yet, House Republicans are proposing to continue funding private school vouchers in D.C. as they are proposing to cut K-12 public school funding nationally by $2 billion this fiscal year.

Far from helping D.C. students, Republicans are seeking to reauthorize a program that has demonstrably failed.  According to the study mandated by the D.C. voucher law, the program has not improved the academic achievement of students as measured by math and reading test scores, which are the objective and universally used measure of educational performance.  Most important, the program has not had “significant impacts” on the achievement of students who the program was designed to most benefit, students who previously attended public schools in need of improvement under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. 

Even if the program were successful, it still would not be needed.  The District has among the most robust public school choice programs 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, students in traditional public schools may also participate in a lottery to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods, and 75 percent are attending out-of-boundary schools. 

Although I am a proud graduate of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and strongly support our traditional public schools, I have always also supported public charter school alternatives, which are accountable to the public, for those parents who are dissatisfied with DCPS.  I understand that children cannot wait until traditional public schools meet the necessary standards.  Yet, DCPS has made some of the most impressive improvements in the country by any measure, spurred by competition from D.C. charter schools, not vouchers.  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.

If Republicans want to support D.C. students, they should support our home-rule public school choice, not impose theirs.  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.