U.S. Education Secretary goes bold on D.C. voucher plan; others go weak

Another Democratic Congress, another chance to attack the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan for kids living in poverty in the nation’s capital. Last week, the Washington Post’s Jenna Portnoy revealed that D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, together with the the House Oversight and Reform and Education and Labor committees, wrote a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seeking information expressing concerns about the OSP. According to the reporter:

“Lawmakers said they want to ensure that federal civil rights laws and safety regulations apply to students in the program, according to the three-page letter to DeVos from Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Education Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Norton.

They requested details about schools participating in the program, including whether they are accredited, whether they are religiously affiliated, how much of their funding comes from the voucher program, whether they have tested drinking water for lead, how many students are disabled and English-language learners, and how many students did not graduate or transferred to another school.”

The questioning comes as Ms. DeVos has moved to increase the number of vouchers awarded to low-income students by raising the budget of the program from its current $45 million dollars a year to $90 million.

The legislative SOAR Act that contains funding for the OSP has been supported locally by Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson because it provides equal dollars to private school vouchers, charter schools, and DCPS, following the three-sector approach championed by the late businessman and philanthropist Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Ms. Portnoy includes in her article the following reaction from the Bowser Administration regarding a challenge to the OSP:

“The program ‘has been instrumental in supporting the District’s three-sector approach on education by providing more opportunities and choices for our students and families,’ Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster said in a statement. ‘We have called on Congress to reauthorize and fully fund [it] so that we have the resources we need to continue ensuring every family in every neighborhood has a fair shot at high quality educational opportunities.’

Choices for families are needed now more than ever. The 2019 D.C. lottery just concluded, so we are expecting anytime this year’s charter school student wait list data. However, for the 2019-to-2020 school term there are 9,437 students on DCPS wait lists and last year there were over 11,000 pupils wanting to get into charters who could not. Having your child admitted to your desired public school continues to be a tremendously frustrating experience for District of Columbia families. Ms. DeVos is on exactly the right track.

Not so brave are those trying to defend charters from those that want to see them become a part of history. The latest assault comes in the form of a Trojan Horse complaint about the lack of transparency around charter school board meetings and finances. The D.C. Council has gotten into the act in the form of a bill introduced by Charles Allen that would force a long list of unfunded mandates on charters. In reaction, last week Council Education Chairman David Grosso brought forth an alternative that would force charters to comply with Open Meeting laws and detail expenses for all to see. The legislation is supported by all the remaining council members and, incomprehensibly, by FOCUS. My god, didn’t we just recently close a charter school in part to rid our movement of union activity? Couldn’t someone have similar guts to tell the Council to stay out of a school sector over which it has no authority?

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