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Federal

Ed. Dept. Sued Over D.C. Voucher Documents

By Catherine Gewertz — April 26, 2005 4 min read
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A liberal organization that opposes the federally financed voucher program in the District of Columbia has filed a suit that seeks to force the U.S. Department of Education to disclose documents detailing how the program is being implemented.

The lawsuit by the People for the American Way Foundation comes after nearly a year of efforts by the organization to obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The Washington-based group has obtained some voucher-related documents, but seeks many more, which it claims the Education Department is illegally withholding in violation of federal open-records law.

Education Department officials declined last week to comment on the lawsuit.

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See the accompanying item,

Table: D.C. Scholarship Applicants

The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship program, approved by Congress in January 2004, provides tuition vouchers worth up to $7,500 that low-income families can use to send their children to participating private schools. The law gives priority to students in schools deemed in need of improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and to District of Columbia public school students.

The foundation’s legal papers, filed April 13 in U.S. District Court in Washington, chronicle its effort to obtain various types of information about the program, including what portion of children awarded vouchers were already attending private schools, the type of lottery design used to award the vouchers, and how the program would be evaluated, as required by Congress.

The group used some of the documents it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to publish a report in February criticizing the voucher program because this school year, in its first year of operation, fewer than 80 of the 1,000 children using vouchers had come from failing schools. More than 200 had been attending private schools. (“Report Takes Aim at First Year of D.C. Voucher Program,” Feb. 16, 2005.)

The foundation contends that the Education Department hadn’t complied with all its requests for documents when it published that report. Once it was published, the department ceased providing any documents at all, the group says, even those department officials said they were working on assembling for the group.

“The report was very critical,” said Judith E. Schaeffer, the deputy legal director of the People for the American Way Foundation, which is affiliated with People for the American Way. “Up until that point, we had been getting some documents from them. When it came out, [the Education Department] slammed the door shut in our faces. You can draw your own conclusions.”

Because the program is controversial and is the nation’s first federally financed voucher program, the public has a right to know how it is operating, Ms. Schaeffer said.

Sally J. Sachar, the president and chief operating officer of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit group that administers the voucher program under a grant from the Education Department, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But she said her organization would be happy to brief the People for the American Way Foundation on how the voucher program is being implemented.

A Numbers Game?

Ms. Sachar said that WSF officials knew from the start that with less than six months to set up the program’s first year, they would be unable to draw a pool of voucher participants that precisely reflected Congress’ priorities. But the pool of voucher users actually reflects those priorities more closely than generally has been represented, she contended.

An independent analysis of the program’s first year, mandated by Congress and released this month, noted that because only 15 District of Columbia schools had been designated “in need of improvement” when the spring voucher lotteries were held, fewer than 80 children were counted as coming from such schools.

But three months after the lotteries, the District of Columbia added 73 more schools to the needing-improvement list. When voucher recipients from those schools were counted as well, 535 students from needing-improvement schools were taking part in the program, the report said.

“In our view, what’s important here is not the arbitrary distinction as to when our lottery was,” Ms. Sachar said. “The important thing is, when those children marched into school in September 2004, where would they have been had they not been in the program?”

Ms. Schaeffer said the Washington Scholarship Fund was “playing a shell game” by taking that view. To gauge how well the WSF did with the program, she said, one must look at how many applicants it obtained for a given school year from the groups Congress made a priority.

“The fact that later on more schools were designated is not the point,” Ms. Schaeffer said. “They’re trying now to put spin on it to make something that doesn’t look good look better.”

Voucher applications for the 2005-06 school year show greater overall parent demand for the slots, greater portions of applicants from schools in need of improvement, and fewer from private schools, according to the WSF. Sixty-six private schools are scheduled to participate in 2005-06, up from 53 this year.

More than 1,600 children are expected to participate in the program in 2005-06, including 900 new to the program. Results of an April 15 lottery—one of several to be conducted this spring for the fall entrants—show none of the new vouchers so far going to private school students.

Of the public school students winning vouchers in the first round, 62 percent are from schools in need of improvement.

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