Voucher Venture

Sen. Lieberman And Allies Push For Expansion Of Federal Funding For Religious Schools In The District Of Columbia

To hear Sen. Joe Lieberman tell it, everyone ought to support the District of Columbia school voucher program.


“This is not…a Democratic or Republican program,” said the Connecticut Independent July 30, as he introduced a bill to expand the private school subsidy. “It’s not a liberal program or a conservative program. It’s a program that puts children first. And I am happy to say that it’s working.”


But advocates of civil rights, civil liberties and the public school system have an entirely different take.


“By every measure,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, “the Washington voucher plan has been a dismal failure. I find it remarkable that anyone would want to reauthorize this program.”


Lieberman and six other senators have introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act to reauthorize federal funding of tuition for low-income students in Washington, D.C. The action sets the stage for a major congressional showdown over public support for religious and other private schools.


Lieberman says he has been promised a Senate floor vote on the D.C. “Opportunity Scholarship” program, and the SOAR Act, S. 1552, is likely to be the plan that the pro-voucher forces put forward, either as a free-standing bill or an amendment on some other vehicle.


The measure allocates $20 million for the voucher scheme, another $20 million for public charter schools and a third $20 million for other D.C. public schools. It continues the D.C. voucher program for five years and raises the voucher amount from $7,500 to $9,000 for grades K-8 and $11,000 for grades 9-12.


The bill has the appearance of bipartisanship. In addition to Lieberman, Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), George Voinovich (Ohio), John Ensign (Nev.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Democrats Diane Feinstein (Calif.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.) signed on.


But, in fact, the Lieberman measure’s support comes from the same array of Religious Right groups, right-wing think tanks, anti-public school forces and religious school lobbies that traditionally back government funding for private education.


James Dobson’s Focus on the Family CitizenLink praised the plan and said it is “expected to move quickly toward passage.” The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke exulted, “Thanks to the introduction of the reauthorization bill yesterday, the future of thousands of D.C. children looks a little brighter.”


Roman Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl was equally enthusiastic.


“This legislation,” said Wuerl, “has put the District’s most at-risk children first…. It is our hope that Congress quickly passes SOAR.” 


Wuerl’s support is hardly surprising. According to the Catholic Standard, 879 of the 1,700 D.C. students enrolled in the voucher program last year attended Catholic schools.


The U.S. Department of Education says approximately 82 percent of voucher students attended religious schools in 2009.


Religious schools are certainly well represented among the recipients of federal voucher funding in D.C.


In addition to an array of Catholic schools, participants range from AmbassadorBaptistChurchChristianSchool, CalvaryChristianAcademy and FirstRockBaptistChristianChurchSchool to Muhammad University of Islam, ClaraMuhammadSchool and DupontParkSeventh-dayAdventistSchool


The D.C. voucher plan was pushed through Congress in 2004 by President George W. Bush, an ardent supporter of “faith-based” social services. The program, recently extended for one year, was billed as a five-year experiment to see if students at “failing” public schools would do better in religious and other private educational institutions.


Studies have not been encouraging.


As Americans United noted in a special August Action backgrounder, “The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) released congressionally mandated academic evaluations in 2007, 2008 and 2009. All three reports revealed that students who entered a voucher school from a ‘school in need of improvement’ demonstrated no increase in academic achievement. Furthermore, participating in the voucher program had no impact on student safety, satisfaction, motivation and engagement.”


A 2007 GAO report found participating private schools that lacked city occupancy permits and employed teachers without bachelor’s degrees. GAO researchers discovered that only 24 percent of voucher students came from academically troubled public schools, supposedly the target audience of the program.


Civil liberties activists are also alarmed that religious schools retain the right to indoctrinate students in matters of faith and discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion even while receiving large amounts of federal funds through the voucher program.


All of these factors have produced a wide range of opposition to the D.C. voucher program and others like it.


In a June letter, 39 educational, religious, civil rights and civil liberties groups urged a U.S. House subcommittee to discontinue the voucher scheme. Signers ranged from the American Association of University Women, the National PTA, the National Education Association and the NAACP to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, African American Ministers in Action, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries. (Americans United signed on as well.)


President Barack Obama has proposed a compromise on the issue. Students currently enrolled in the D.C. voucher program would be allowed to continue in it through 12th grade. No new students, however, would be admitted.


The Obama compromise pleases neither side in the battle, but the Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress will be under considerable pressure to bend to the president’s wishes.


In the meantime, Lieberman is certain to continue his crusade on behalf of the voucher program’s expansion. He dismissed the Obama position as inadequate.


“That I suppose is a step forward,” he said, “but with all due respect, in my opinion, it’s simply not enough.”


On May13, his Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Govern ment Affairs held a two-hour hearing that celebrated the plan. Witnesses included a current voucher student, a former voucher student and a parent who praised the scheme.


Voucher supporters have a ready pool of sympathetic students and parents to draw on for media outreach.


In addition, The Washington Post has crusaded on behalf of the program, running a series of editorials that hail its alleged educational accomplishments.


“The program,” the newspaper said, “has more applicants than slots; rigorous study has shown significant improvements in student reading, and parents are happy that their children are in schools that are safer and of better quality.”


Opponents are unimpressed with that kind of rhetoric.


AU’s Lynn noted on his Beliefnet blog, “I don’t know where the Post is getting these facts because they are far from accurate. It’s this type of propaganda that keeps alive this program that takes federal taxpayer dollars, gives them to religious schools that are free to discriminate in hiring, discriminate in admissions and indoctrinate children in the tenets of one faith, while leaving the D.C. public school system to suffer.”


Lynn says studies continue to roll in that show how ineffective voucher programs are.


Most recently, Northwestern University examined a voucher-type program under way in Florida, and preliminary data there finds that voucher students enrolled in private schools do no better than similar students in public schools.


Northwestern economics professor David Figlio told the St. Petersburg Times in June that it’s too early to draw hard-and-fast conclusions, but that more data isn’t likely to change the bottom line.


“My hunch,” he said, “is, when all is said and done…it’s going to be a wash in terms of test scores.”


Lieberman, however, is unlikely to be deterred.


At a press conference announcing his new voucher bill, he declared, “We will not give up. We’re not going to stop until we win.”


AU’s Lynn has a different message.


“The D.C. voucher program was a mistake from day one,” he said, in a July 30 press statement. “It’s time to let it die and put the focus back on the public schools. We need a solution that helps all of our schoolchildren in our nation’s capital.”