December 2015 Church & State | Featured

As schools go, the Academia de la Recta Porta in Washington, D.C., doesn’t seem to offer much. Squeezed between grimy storefronts in a tumble-down area of northwest D.C. near the Maryland line, the school consists of just two classrooms.The school’s music program, The Washington Post reported in 2012, includes a keyboard and a drum. The facility lacks a gym, so students have to go two miles away to a recreation center for exercise. There is no library.

The institution, which shares space with a religious organization called New Dimensions Kingdom Min­i­stries, is not accredited. It serves 65 students and labels itself an “International Christian day school."

A storefront school like this would have probably faded away a long time ago, but the institution, which roughly translates as “Straight Line Academy,” has been given new life thanks to a voucher program operating in the nation’s capital.

The controversial scheme dates back to 2003. Heavily promoted by the administration of President George W. Bush, the plan was railroaded through the U.S. House of Representatives on a night when many voucher opponents were away from that chamber. It passed by one vote, and Republicans held the vote open for more than 40 minutes to gather the necessary support. It later cleared the Senate only as a result of a procedural move.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, the voucher plan has grown in the past 12 years. A majority of the members of the Washington, D.C., City Council don’t support the program. President Barack Obama is against it. Several studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education have shown that students taking part in the voucher program are faring no better than their peers in public schools.

Polls show that the majority of D.C. residents don’t support vouchers. In addition, the scheme has been rife with private schools of questionable quality. One of them is an academy run by the controversial Nation of Islam. Another, the Academy for Ideal Education, is based on “suggestopedia,” an untested educational philosophy from Bulgaria that is based on “techniques of introspection, centering, relaxation, stretches, and affirmations, and the application of these in students’ lives to awaken, nurture and draw into outer expression those inner qualities of love, truth, intelligence and joy abiding at the core of every individual.”

Despite all of this, the voucher program, which was pitched as a five-year “experiment” when it was first proposed, will not die. Most recently, the program came up for reauthorization in Congress in October. Despite strong opposition on the D.C. Council and from Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, the District’s non-voting representative in Congress, it is moving forward again.

Americans United did its best to slow down the reauthorization. As the reauthorization vote loomed, AU’s Legislative Department sent action alerts to D.C. residents and activists around the country, urging them to contact their representatives and ask them to vote against it.

On Oct. 6, the National Coalition for Public Education, a collection of 56 national organizations that is chaired by Americans United, sent a letter to leaders in the House urging that the program be terminated.

The four-page letter pointed out the serious flaws in the scheme, noting that the D.C. plan hasn’t boosted academic achievement, lacks sufficient oversight, threatens public education and undermines civil rights and constitutional protections.The letter also noted that the program doesn’t even achieve its main goal: creating more educational choices for students.“Vouchers do not offer a meaningful choice to parents or students,” it read. “Voucher schools can reject students based on prior academic achievement, economic background, English language ability, or disciplinary history. Also, the D.C. voucher allows religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of gender. In contrast, public schools serve all students who live in D.C.”

The letter also pointed out that many special-education students can’t get the services they need in private schools. The coalition also distributed detailed background material, including a fact sheet debunking myths about the voucher program,AU’s legislative team followed up in the Senate, where two Democrats, Dianne Feinstein of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, co-sponsored legislation to reauthorize the program. AU asked members in those states to contact the senators and urge them to reverse course.The D.C. voucher plan is the only federal program of its type currently in operation. Americans United’s opposition to it goes back more than a decade. AU lobbied against the proposal in 2004 and has sought to defund it ever since.Part of the problem with the plan, AU asserts, is that is has become a bailout program for private religious schools. AU notes that many of the schools taking part in the program are Roman Catholic institutions, some of which were struggling to remain open until the federal subsidies came.In 2009, Americans United submitted written testimony about the plan to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations’ Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee. At that time, AU urged lawmakers to let the plan expire.“The D.C. voucher program has not improved the D.C. school system and has not improved the educational achievement of D.C. voucher participants,” asserted the testimony. “Furthermore, the program is constitutionally suspect. The federal government should be funding public schools rather than funneling taxpayer funds to private schools that lack accountability, religious liberty and civil rights standards.”That same year, Obama proposed allowing students who take part in the program to finish their education but admitting no new students as a way of phasing out the plan. But Republican legislators who took control of the House in 2010 had other ideas, and the program has continued to be funded at about $20 million annually (up from $12 million the first year). Because the program lacks strong support in Con­gress, its backers have had to resort to tricks to keep it alive: In 2011, House conservatives made reauthorization of the program part of a deal to avoid a government shutdown.But there was another factor that has kept the program going. It has friends in high places. In the House, support for the voucher scheme was spearheaded by former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner wasn’t speaker when the program was launched in 2004, but he became one of its greatest champions.One of Boehner’s former staff members, David Schnittger, said the voucher program was important to Boehner, a Catholic whose family struggled to pay for parochial school tuition when he was a child.“It’s unquestionably a defining characteristic of the Boehner speakership,” Schnittger told The Post. “This is a topic very close to his heart.” (In September, Boehner announced that he would step down from the speakership and resign from the House after far-right members rebelled against his leadership.)Boehner had help from an unlikely ally: The Washington Post. Although the newspaper has run stories highlighting the shoddy nature of some of the voucher schools, its editorial page is relentlessly pro-voucher. Every time the program comes up for reauthorization, The Post produces a raft of editorials praising the plan and blasting its critics.Program supporters also love to cherry pick data and focus on personal anecdotes to keep the program going. Whenever it comes up for reauthorization, Catholic school officials in D.C. pack congressional hearings with young children dressed in crisp school uniforms.Supporters also like to highlight that a small number of children in the program are attending prestigious private schools in the D.C. area. But the number who actually pull that off is miniscule. The voucher program offers payments of $8,000 to $12,000 annually, while tuition at an elite D.C.-area academy can easily be three times that. (The yearly tuition at Sidwell Friends School, one of the area’s most famous private academies, tops many colleges at almost $40,000.)None of this mattered to ideologues in Congress, however. On Oct. 21, the House passed legislation to fund the program through 2021. The vote was 240-191. Under the bill, $20 million will be allocated for vouchers. The only new regulation added is that from now on, participating private schools will have to secure accreditation within five years. An attempt by Norton to apply more rigorous academic standards to the schools failed.At press time, a companion bill was pending in the Senate.