In one of his final anticipated acts as a congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, this week John Boehner introduced bipartisan legislation to reauthorize for five years the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the plan that provides private school scholarships to about 1,500 children a year living in poverty. The funding for the OSP is part of the three sector education approach spearheaded by local philanthropist Joseph E. Robert, Jr. when he was alive that also includes $15 million for the traditional school system and another $15 million for the charter sector.
Yesterday, eight D.C. Councilpersons sent a letter to U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, calling for the winding down of the OSP by blocking new entrants to the program and only allowing those students currently enrolled to continue using the vouchers through high school. The move proclaims loud and clear to members on the Hill that you can have your money back.
The signatories on the letter include education committee chairman David Grosso, Anita Bonds, Charles Allen, Yvette Alexander, LaRuby May, Brianne Nadeau, Elissa Silverman, and Jack Evans. Those apparently not going along with the idea of taking away the scholarships include Vincent Orange, Mary Cheh, Kenyan McDuffie, Brandon Todd, and perhaps most interesting, Council chairman Phil Mendelson. In additon, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles did not add their names to those calling for the repeal of the legislation. The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton quotes the Mayor’s spokesperson as commenting:
“We support federal funding that benefits District residents. . . The District has been a model for education reform, and the mayor is committed to building on our successes.”
Most unfortunately, the letter includes multiple false claims about the OSP. To pick out just a few, it states that students do not benefit from participating in the plan, that it lacks accountability, and that it provides more funding than is offered through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. All of these statements are not accurate.
Students receiving scholarships have a 91 percent high school graduation rate, 21 percent higher than that of kids whose parents sought a voucher but could not obtain one. The rate is about 30 percent higher than that of DCPS. A 2013 review of the OSP found a statistically significant increase in reading scores.
In addition, there are multiple accountability measures included in the Act. Schools participating in the OSP, among other things, are required to maintain valid certificates of occupancy, provide information on school accreditation, demonstrate financial strength if operating less than five years, be open to visits by the plan administrator, and ensure that each teacher of core subjects has a baccalaureate degree or higher.
Finally, the scholarships are worth about $8,300 for elementary and middle school and $12,400 for high school. These figures are substantially below the UPSFF amount of approximately $18,000 spent on each student per year.
Perhaps the most important fact about the OSP is that for 84 percent of the pupils enrolled, if there were no scholarships they would be attending a neighborhood school designated by the No Child Left Behind law as in need of improvement. But I’m sure if asked the eight D.C. representatives who signed yesterday’s letter would say that its all about the kids. Nothing could be further from the truth.