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Democrats Press D.C. Voucher Program for Information on Student Civil Rights

By Evie Blad — February 25, 2020 2 min read
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Congressional Democrats are pressing the administrator of the District of Columbia’s private school voucher program for more information about how federal civil rights laws are enforced at private schools that enroll students through the program.

The D.C. voucher program is authorized through a federal law called the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, or SOAR, which includes the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. It provides public funding that allows qualifying students to attend private schools in the district.

Lawmakers’ concerns, expressed in a Feb. 25 letter to the organization that administers the voucher program, come as the Trump administration seeks to boost private school choice programs through a federal tax credit, and to support the expansion of state-level vouchers and tax-credit scholarships.

It also comes as opponents of private school choice around the country question providing public funds for private schools, particularly religiously affiliated schools that may have policies that discriminate against LGBTQ students.

In the letter, lawmakers told Serving Our Children that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had provided insufficient responses to their previous requests for more information about the program’s performance, federal oversight, and whether participating students are “afforded the same civil rights as D.C. public school students, including protections in federal civil rights laws and safety regulations.”

“In response, the Department identified only one federal civil rights law that applies to students in this program—the limited nondiscrimination provision in the SOAR Act—and stated that the Department is ‘not aware’ of any complaints filed or enforcement actions brought under that provision,” said the letter from Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the chairwoman of the House oversight committee; Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education and labor committee; and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the congressional delegate for the District of Columbia.

DeVos’ responses did not address other federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, and disability status, the letter says.

The lawmakers requested information about several topics, including:

  • A description of federal civil rights laws that apply to participating students and schools
  • Copies of all complaints and enforcement actions taken under civil rights provision
  • An explanation of how non-discrimination laws included in the SOAR Act are interpreted and enforced
  • The number of students participating, including English-language learners and students with disabilities
  • How many voucher students left school without graduating
  • What schools are participating and whether they are accredited
  • Whether schools are complying with a local D.C. law governing the program
  • Dates of site visits by Serving Our Children.

This is not the first time skeptics have shared concerns about civil rights protections under the D.C. voucher program. In 2016, for example, in a letter to members of Congress, the National Education Association (which opposes vouchers) wrote that schools participating in the program “are not subject to all the federal civil rights laws that public schools must meet.”