Education Opinion

Let’s Chill Out About D.C. Vouchers

By Sara Mead — March 30, 2011 2 min read
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Given the politics here, yesterday’s Statement of Administration Policy opposing House Speaker John Boehner’s proposed D.C. voucher legislation is news. But vouchers are an issue where it’s easy for folks to get carried away, and the actual substance doesn’t justify some of the rhetoric here. My colleague Andrew Rotherham’s latest TIME column debunking 5 common myths about vouchers is a good corrective.

I’d add a 6th, though, which is the exaggerated significance given to the D.C. Voucher program in education debates. Look, given the polarized climate in Washington, the politics of education policy, and the players involved, this is going to be a political hot-button--possibly one with implications for ESEA reauthorization. And I’m not going to dispute that the D.C. Voucher program matters A LOT to the children who receive vouchers and their families.

But people should be honest that this is a tiny and limited program. At its peak, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program served around 1700 students. The SOAR legislation would provide $20 million annually for D.C. vouchers. At the maximum tuition levels in the bill, that would probably be enough to provide vouchers for around 2,200 students. So we’re talking about less than 3% of the kids in tiny D.C. A program this small is neither a death knell for public education nor a triumph for educational equity for poor kids. And people should stop talking like it is.

And then there’s the question of what private schools these kids can go to. The SOAR legislation maintains the dumbest feature of the original Opportunity Scholarship legislation, which was the limitation of vouchers to private schools located in the District of Columbia. There is absolutely no reason for this (except the cynical political kind), given that D.C. is small enough for many children to easily get to private schools in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, and some kids eligible for vouchers live closer to private schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, than they do to many of the private schools in D.C. Not to mention that 6 of the Catholic schools that existed when the Opportunity Scholarships were first created have since become charter schools, and other private schools have closed or gone out of business. And there were always concerns about whether or not D.C. has enough high school-level private school slots to meet program demand or ensure continuity for the evaluation.

And we’re not even talking about quality here. Andy’s point 5 is dead on. Here’s a dare for folks: Get a copy of Fight for Children’s D.C. School Chooser. Pick 5 private schools located East of Rock Creek Park. Visit those schools. Then tell me which of those schools you’d send your child to.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.