Congress has the opportunity to give low-income parents in the District of Columbia scholarships of up to $7,500 to enroll their children in a private school of their choice. The proposal, passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House of Representatives, will come to a final vote in the near future as part of the FY 2004 D.C. Appropriations bill or an omnibus appropriations bill.
During floor debate or conference, it is essential Members not add additional mandates to the legislation's existing requirements on schools and families. Additional requirements will reduce the number of options for participating families and are unlikely to improve the program in any way.
History of the Legislation
Earlier this year, frustrated parents and prominent elected leaders such as Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), D.C. Councilman Kevin P. Chavous and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz called on Congress to pass legislation to provide needy students with scholarships to attend private schools. Despite D.C.'s per-pupil expenditure of over $12,000, students continue to fall behind. Less than 10 percent of the District's 8th grade students are proficient in reading, math, and science according to national assessments, and more than half lack basic knowledge of these subjects.
On September 9, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the FY 2004 D.C. Appropriations bill (H.R. 2765) modeled after the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act (H.R. 2556). The $10 million proposal would grant low-income children in the District a scholarship of up to $7,500.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a companion bill on September 4, 2003, which authorized $13 million for the scholarship program. The reform proposal also includes an extra $26 million for D.C. public schools and public charter schools. The $545 million D.C. Appropriations bill (S.1583)was reported out of Committee on September 4 but foes of parental choice have prevented it from reaching the Senate floor.
For more history see D.C. Scholarship Proposal Would Give Students Access to Quality Schools by Krista Kafer (http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/Bg1671.cfm)
Requirements in the Legislation
The Senate and House bills contain a number of requirements for organizations that administer the program and schools that participate. Organizations that administer scholarship programs must:
- Apply to the U.S. Secretary of Education,
- Have a majority of voting board members be residents of the District of Columbia,
- Ensure schools are financially responsible, and
- Use a random selection process for admissions, with priority given to students in low-performing public schools.
The House bill requires that scholarships be limited to children from families whose annual income does not exceed 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines, which is currently $34,040 for a family of four. The Senate bill requires that families' incomes not exceed 200 percent of poverty. Furthermore, both the House and Senate bills require an annual evaluation of the scholarship program.
The evaluation is to be conducted by the U.S. Secretary of Education and presented to Congress. The evaluation must include:
- A comparison of the students' academic achievement (including drop-out, retention, graduation, and college admissions rates as well as measures of safety issues) compared to those who do not use scholarships,
- Success of the program in expanding choice options for parents,
- Reasons parents choose to participate,
- Impact of the program on public schools, and
- Degree of parental satisfaction.
Additionally, the participating schools must report once a year to parents on their children's academic achievement, the aggregate achievement level of his or her classmates, and the safety record of the school. Schools may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sex and must accept any students on a religious-neutral basis.
An amendment offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and adopted during committee mark-up in the Senate contains additional requirements. Organizations administering the program must test scholarship students with the same standardized tests given to students in D.C. public schools, and teachers at participating private schools must have college degrees. During committee mark-up and floor consideration, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and others failed in attempts to add additional requirements that would have required:
- Private schools meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) and teacher mandates under the federal No Child Left Behind Act,
- A loss of funding after three years if students did not make AYP. Public schools do not lose funding under such conditions,
- Teachers would have to be "certified" and to have met NCLB subject area mastery stipulations. Some of the best, most competitive private schools in the District such as Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day School do not require "teacher certification," though many of their teachers hold Masters degrees and Ph.D.'s in the subjects they teach.
Another provision would have restricted the program so that only children from the D.C. public schools identified as failing under NCLB could participate. Had the amendments been adopted, only students from 15 District schools, mostly middle and high schools, could benefit from the program. Furthermore, these measures are not required of the charter schools in the District of Columbia, which enjoy significant bipartisan support.
Congress should pass legislation that will enable as many of the District's poor students as possible the opportunity to choose a good school. While negotiating the final appropriations legislation, Members should resist adding any new requirements that would restrict the number of schools or students who participate. Specifically, they should:
- Oppose adding mandates requiring private schools to meet the terms of the No Child Left Behind Act that are intended to raise achievement at ailing public schools. Private schools already are accountable to parents for their performance; NCLB sought to address the lack of accountability in the public system. Teacher certification and AYP requirements under NCLB would be superfluous to private schools. They would increase the cost of compliance and dissuade schools from participating, thus reducing the pool of schools from which poor families may choose. The District's private school students consistently achieve at higher rates than those in public schools. Private schools are inherently accountable to their clientele and should not be saddled with additional requirements.
- Do not constrain the number of students who can participate to those attending the worst public schools.Limiting the number of students who may participate according to where they attend school is unfair to the rest of the students. Just six percent of D.C. 4th graders are proficient in math, and only 10 percent are proficient in reading. In other words, a great many students at the District are "higher performing" schools are struggling. These students should be given an opportunity to attend a school that better meets their needs.
No New Restrictions
According to the FY 2004 D.C. Appropriations bill, "Parents are best equipped to make decisions for their children, including the educational setting that will best serve the interests and educational needs of their child." The bill will enable poor families in the District of Columbia to enroll their children in a school that best meets their needs.
Research on privately funded vouchers in the District and on private and publicly funded programs nationwide has shown school choice to be beneficial to students and to the public school system.  In order to make the most of this opportunity, it is essential that Congress not add new restrictions on schools or students to the legislation. Congress should send a strong bill to the President that will give the greatest number of families the greatest number of options for their children.
In the words of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Councilman Kevin P. Chavous and D.C. School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, "We, as local leaders, are simply imploring Congress to embrace our efforts to help our long-neglected student population with every available tool. We believe the current proposal adequately addresses legitimate concerns about constitutionality, separation of church and state, accountability, selection of students and other issues."
Krista Kafer is Senior Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation
See National Center for Education Statistics, "State Profiles: District of Columbia," updated June 10, 2003, in National Assessment of Educational Progress: The Nation's Report Card, at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/profile.asp.
The S. 1583 appropriates $545 million and H.R. 2765 appropriates $466 million. The bills also approve the city's budget, which totals $7.4 billion.
For more information about the research supporting parental choice see Krista Kafer, "D.C. Scholarship Proposal Would Give Students Access to Quality Schools," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1671, July 22, 2003 at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/Bg1671.cfm See also http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/Schools/schoolchoice_research.cfm.
Anthony A. Williams, Kevin P. Chavous and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, "Washington's Children Deserve More Choices," Washington Post, September 3, 2003, p. A17.