Lieberman, Republicans Use $60 Million in Education Funds to Push Voucher Program on DC

By Nate Hennagin

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the DC voucher program titled, "The Value of Education Choices: Saving the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program." The hearing was led by Senator Lieberman (I-CT), who is the chair of the Committee and also the main sponsor of S. 206, which would reauthorize and expand the DC voucher program. This program is bad for students, parents, and the District as a whole. It has repeatedly been proven ineffective and the funds would be better spent in public schools rather than private and parochial schools that integrate religion into their curriculum.

President Obama began winding down the DC voucher program in 2009 by limiting the funding only to those students who currently receive vouchers. Senator Lieberman’s new voucher bill, which has a companion bill in the House (H.R. 471) introduced by Speaker Boehner, authorizes $20 million each to be spent on private school vouchers, charter schools, and public schools in the District, for a total of $60 million.

The hearing's two key witnesses, DC Mayor Vincent Gray and DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown, both thanked the Committee for promoting a bill that would provide funds to DC schools, but both pointed out key problems with the voucher program. Mayor Gray has long voiced his opposition to the DC voucher program and stated that improving DC’s public schools should be the priority. Chairman Brown supported vouchers, but raised questions about participating schools in the program not adhering to the DC Human Rights Act, namely because religious schools that participate can discriminate against students based on gender and against faculty based on religion.

Senator Lieberman and Senator Collins (R-ME), the only two Committee members at the hearing, were not swayed by these concerns and threatened to cut off federal funding for DC schools entirely if DC did not accept the voucher program. During the questions, Senator Lieberman stated that there would be a "high probability that the District will lose that additional funding for public and charter schools" unless the program is implemented. Senator Collins, who is also a co-sponsor on the bill, went on to say "I believe unless there is a three-sector approach, the money for DC public schools and DC charter schools will be in jeopardy." If these legislators truly care about improving education for children in the district, they should work with city residents and leaders to find the best ways to use the funds to help all kids, rather than hold public and charter school funding hostage with a voucher program. These actions reveal the truth about the voucher bill: it is really about expanding the voucher program and not about improving education for DC students.

Another issue brought up during the hearing took place during a conversation between Senator Collins and Mayor Gray. In 2008, several DC Catholic schools, on the verge of bankruptcy, converted to public charter schools. This required them to remove religion from their curriculum. Senator Collins went on to say "if this [voucher] program were continued, they'd still be operating as Catholic schools." In other words, Senator Collins' preferred outcome would have been a private school bailout so that schools could continue teaching religion and getting federal subsidies. Indeed, 80% of the current students attend religious schools.

Playing politics with the education of DC's students is bad policy. The District of Columbia already struggles with the Federal Government on the issue of Home Rule, as Congress can override local laws that are passed by the DC Council and often imposes unwanted policies and programs on the city. This is just another attempt by legislators to use DC as a Petri dish to score political points with an ineffective policy that would not pass if applied to all the states. Using taxpayer money for private and parochial schools through a program that does not improve academic achievement, is not accountable to taxpayers, and integrates religion into the curriculum is not the way to truly improve our education system.

Tell your members of Congress TODAY to oppose the DC voucher program!

You can also read testimony and watch a video of the hearing here.

For more information on the voucher program and the positions of AU and the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), visit the new school voucher page on our website.