Congress needs to immediately expand D.C. private school voucher program

As was written about yesterday, the Covid-19 pandemic is greatly exacerbating the gap in educational opportunities for the affluent compared to the poor. The new school year is rapidly coming towards us and with almost all public schools reverting to distance learning, families with the financial means to do so are figuring out alternative delivery methods for instructing their children. Some are creating pods of small groups of kids and then hiring a teacher to instruct them at participants’ homes. Others are having parents impart lessons to neighborhood boys and girls as an adjunct to the remote classrooms offered from their regular school. A taste of what is going on out there comes from the New York Times’ Melinda Wenner Moyer.

“Instead of hiring teachers, some families are hoping to share the teaching among the parents. Meredith Phillips, a mother of an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old who lives in Croton, N.Y., is hoping to create a pod with three other families this fall that will rotate houses. One of the dads, who owns a tech company, might teach coding, while Phillips, who is an editor, will teach reading and writing. The parents will ideally teach ‘whatever they’re good at, or know about or care about,’ Phillips said, and in doing so expose the kids to lots of different subjects.

Some families are pulling their kids out of school for these learning pods, while others are using pods as a supplement to their schools’ online curricula. ‘Ideally, from our perspective, it would be complementary, rather than a replacement,’ said Adam Davis, a pediatrician in San Francisco who is hoping to create a learning pod with a teacher or college-aged helper for his second grader and kindergartener in the fall.”

Other parents are enrolling their children in private schools that are able to open because of the small class sizes that they routinely provide.

The world of pods and private schools are simply unavailable for those who live in poverty, with one important exception. Since 2004, the District of Columbia has been home to the only national private school voucher program approved by Congress. Currently, about 1,700 low income pupils participate. Many more families would take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship Program if funding beyond the current $17.5 million per year was allocated.

A tremendous focus of public education over the past several years has been equity for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The Black Lives Matter movement has placed a powder keg under this goal.

Everyone knows that distance learning is far from ideal. Families struggle mightily to have their children participate while they have to work. Basic human fairness means that alternatives to learning in front of a computer should be available to all no matter the income of the parents or the zip code in which they live.

Let’s call on Congress to immediately expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

In State of the Union speech, President calls for expansion of private school vouchers

Here are the remarks of President Trump last evening on the subject of school choice:

“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Yet, for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools. To rescue these students, 18 States have created school choice in the form of Opportunity Scholarships. The programs are so popular, that tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists. One of those students is Janiyah Davis, a fourth grader from Philadelphia. Janiyah’s mom Stephanie is a single parent. She would do anything to give her daughter a better future. But last year, that future was put further out of reach when Pennsylvania’s Governor vetoed legislation to expand school choice for 50,000 children.

Janiyah and Stephanie are in the gallery this evening. But there is more to their story. Janiyah, I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over. I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it is going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice!

Now, I call on the Congress to give 1 million American children the same opportunity Janiyah has just received. Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.”

In the nation’s capital, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that denies our city an additional $15 million a year for the education of our children and denies making this program permanent.

In 2020, no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school. This should be a fundamental civil right.

U.S. House Speaker Pelosi and D.C. Delegate Norton shortchange District children by $15 million a year

In about a month, on February 24, 2020, we will celebrate the birthday of Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Had he not passed away at the end of 2011 from brain cancer, Mr. Robert would be 68 years old. When he was alive he was a ferocious supporter of D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides to children living in poverty free tuition to private elementary and secondary schools. For years Mr. Robert’s organization, the Washington Scholarship Fund, was the administrator of this federal initiative.

Beginning in 2020 the OSP was up for renewal. Supporters, such as Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, sought to make these scholarships available in perpetuity and increase funding to $75 million annually. In the legislation’s early days, Mr. Robert drove bipartisan support for the scholarships by promoting the three-sector approach that gives equal dollars to DCPS, charters, and the voucher plan. Under the most recent proposal, $25 million would have gone to the three groups. Mayor Muriel Bowser, to her tremendous credit, was a strong supporter of the measure.

Now some background. Since 2004, the three-sector initiative has resulted in more than $787 million for Kindergarten to twelfth grade education in Washington, D.C.

Despite the additional funding that this legislation would have brought our city, and ignoring local wishes, U.S. House of Representative Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Representative for the District of Columbia Eleanor Holmes Norton blocked the recent bill. Lost to charters, traditional schools, and the OSP is an additional $15 million each and every year, money that could have gone to support teachers. The most that they would agree to was a four-year extension.

After 20 years of public education reform in the nation’s capital, the achievement gap is holding stubbornly steady at about 60 points. Thousands of kids sit on charter school wait lists. Many traditional schools register English and math proficiency rates in the teens. Despite heroic efforts my many these issues are not going away any time soon.  At this point, it makes perfect sense that we should do whatever we can to extend to families all possible options to obtain a quality education for their children.  This includes providing private school vouchers to low income students.

I just don’t understand what is going on here. We are talking about our neighbors, with some of the most at-risk kids living in eyesight of the Washington Monument. Where is the sense of justice, equity, and decency that we seek for our society?

Why, in this one simple case, can’t adults just do the right thing?

Not an education post today, sort of

Justin Wm. Moyer of the Washington Post revealed last evening that Childrens National Health System next year will open a pediatric health research facility on the site of the old Walter Reed Hospital. The 12-acre Children’s National Research and Innovation Campus will include an outpatient clinic.

The $190 million center is being build with a gift of $30 million from the
United Arab Emirates. Mr. Moyer added that “the UAE gift was announced the same day Children’s National said it would partner with Johnson & Johnson to build a 32,000-square-foot facility on the new campus called JLabs @ Washington, DC. In a collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services, JLabs will focus on medical responses to chemical, biological and nuclear threats, as well as infectious diseases. “

The grant from the UAE comes almost exactly a decade after Joseph E. Robert, Jr. engineered a $150 million contribution from the same nation. Mr. Robert is not mentioned in yesterday’s Post article, which is exactly how he would have wanted it. The Washington, D.C. businessman and philanthropist, who passed away from brain cancer at the end of 2011, much preferred operating behind the scenes. The New York Times covered his achievement in 2009 that led to the formation of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at the hospital’s current site:

“The institute’s goals were hatched in the home of Joseph E. Robert Jr., who made a fortune selling the real estate held by failed savings and loans in the early 1990s.

Mr. Robert’s son had undergone more than nine hours of surgery at Children’s National several years before that. His son has since become a Marine, and Mr. Robert donated $25 million to the hospital for a surgical center. A few years after that, he was sitting around his dining room table with some hospital executives, discussing how to make surgery less frightening and painful for its patients and their parents.

Last fall, armed with the business plan that came out of that initial discussion, Mr. Robert visited Abu Dhabi. He had become friendly with the ruling family and with the crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

‘We were eating dinner off of TV trays, in front of a bank of televisions, watching the news, and I just started talking about the evolution of the plan and how important a concept I thought it was, and he was immediately interested,’ Mr. Robert said.”

Mr. Robert was also instrumental in support of Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the plan that provides private school vouchers for children living in poverty in the nation’s capital. Just recently, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she would like to double the size of the OSP from $45 million to $90 million. In trying to figure out how to get this program passed by Congress in 2004, Mr. Robert promoted the three-sector approach that gives equal funding to vouchers, DCPS, and charter schools. Mayor Bowser has stated that she supports the OSP because of the money it provides to the traditional schools and charters, as well as the additional choices it gives to parents regarding the education of their children.

When he was alive Mr. Robert was a fierce advocate for those less fortunate then himself, and he enlisted many from the fields of politics, entertainment, business, and healthcare to give of themselves and their pocketbooks to join his endeavors.  He founded Fight for Children which has raised over $300 million for young people in the Washington, D.C. area. He is credited with bringing in over a billion dollars for children and education.

As we have seen in the news in the last week, his legacy continues.

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?

Study of D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program points to struggle teaching low income children

In a balanced story appearing this morning by the Washington Post’s Perry Stein, the reporter details a study released this week by the Institute of Education Sciences, which is the “statistics, research, and evaluation arm” of the United States Department of Education that evaluated the performance of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan in the District of Columbia for children living in poverty.

Comparing kids in the program to a control group of students who applied but did not receive a voucher, the group found that after two years of participation students scored lower academically in both reading and math.  The lower reading scores were not significant, but for math the deficit was 10 points for those in the OSP.  D.C.’s non-voting member of Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who never misses a chance to denigrate the voucher program, commented to Ms. Perry, “That is my chief regret about the voucher program. . . If Congress is interested in putting money in schools, it should be putting that money where the results show the money should be.”

The funding from Congress for the OSP, which I’m sure Ms. Norton understands, goes equally to DCPS, charter schools, and private schools, and provides each with $20 million in revenue per year.  The dollars have been divvied up this way ever since Joseph E. Robert, Jr. promoted the three-sector approach about 15 years ago.

What I could not find in the highly detailed study was the list of participating schools.  The report does state that 59 schools accepted voucher students, which I consider a high number considering about 1,300 kids utilized the scholarships per term.  The investigation does point out that of the institutions accepting OSP pupils “62 percent were religiously affiliated, and 38 percent were Catholic schools operating within the Archdiocese of Washington.”  An interesting side note is that of those schools in the program, 70 percent charge tuition higher than financial award provided by the voucher.

I hope that the results of this study are going back to the schools that these children attend.  It would be extremely interesting to hear their take on the results and whether this information impacts their approach to teaching low-income children.  With all of the unfortunate politics surrounding providing school scholarships to kids living in poverty, it would be fascinating to see if pedagogical improvements come as a result of this data.

 

President Trump proposes to end D.C. college scholarship program

News broke like wildfire yesterday that President Trump’s most recent fiscal 2019 federal budget submission includes in it the elimination of DCTAG.  Here’s a description of the scholarship plan by the Washington Post’s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

“Through the tuition program, tens of thousands of students have received $350 million to enroll at 578 colleges. Students can receive as much as $10,000 a year to attend public universities outside the city, or up to $2,500 to enroll in a private college in the D.C. metro area or at any historically black college or university across the nation.

The grants are available to all District students — except high-income families — but student advocates say the money makes the biggest difference for low-income residents. The annual family income cap has shifted in recent years; it once was $1 million but, in more recent years, has stood between $750,000 and $777,000.”

DCTAG was the brainchild of Northern Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, who believed that there were not enough high quality options for state colleges for children living in the District.  My wife and I helped Mr. David become elected to Congress in 1994, running his campaign in Reston.  The program costs the American taxpayer $40 million a year.  The Trump Administration, according to the Post’s article, made the proposal “because of a lack of a clear federal role for supporting the cost of higher education specifically for District residents.”  Ms. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel states that 26,000 students have taken advantage of the scholarships.

A school choice advocate close to the Administration explained to me yesterday that DCTAG is in no jeopardy of being shutdown.  He points to the words of U.S. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, again from the Post article:

“Norton said in a statement that the two-year budget deal reached last week preempts the White House budget, rendering it ‘dead on arrival.’ The District’s only representative in Congress said she wants to assure D.C. parents and students that she does not believe they are in danger of losing funding for the tuition assistance program.”

Interestingly, even the CATO Institute’s director of educational freedom Neal McCluskey finds the move strange. “It strikes me as an odd candidate to target for elimination,” he comments to the Post.  “Surely there are targets far more ripe for elimination.”

Mayor Bowser was incensed.  She wrote on Twitter: “#DidYouKnow that the college education of thousands of DC students is at risk? President Trump has completely eliminated the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program in his 2019 budget proposal. Urge Congress to reject Trump’s proposal. #SaveDCTAG today:

A petition has been started to protect the program which has been signed by D.C. Council education committee chair David Grosso, and he has encouraged others to follow his lead.  My question is why is the Councilmember so upset about DCTAG when he fought so strongly against Congressional renewal of the Opportunity Scholarship Program?

 

 

 

A private school scholarship for every child living in D.C.? That’s what Senator Cruz and Representative Meadows want

The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit revealed on Thursday that Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Mark Meadow have introduced a bill in the United States Congress called the Educational Freedom Accounts Act that would offer a private school scholarship to any child residing in the District of Columbia.  Currently, D.C. has America’s only federally funded private school voucher plan, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, but it is limited to those families living in poverty.  About 1,100 pupils currently participate in the OSP.  This legislation would permit any student in grades Kindergarten through 12 to take advantage of a private school scholarship, and depending upon family income, it would provide 80 to 90 percent of the money allocated annually to teach kids through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.  The dollars would be deposited in individual educational savings accounts.

The timing of this news comes as an interesting coincidence.  Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the passing away from brain cancer of Joseph E. Robert, Jr.  When he was alive Mr. Robert created the Washington Scholarship Fund that awarded private school tuition for low-income children.  When the federal voucher program was enacted the same organization became the administrator.  He was a steadfast fighter for the continuation of the OSP, even in the face of eight years of effort by the Obama administration to shut it down.  Fortunately, with Serving Our Children now running the OSP, it is expected to at least triple in size.

The only problem I can see with the bill is the proposed funding level.  Ms. Balingit points out in her article that today’s per student funding is equal to about $9,500 a year.  Therefore, a middle class family with a child in the sixth grade, for example, would receive 80 percent of this amount which equals $7,500; lower than the $8,653 currently paid under the OSP.  Moreover, the existing OSP scholarship levels are already too low considering the high cost of many private schools in D.C.

But the introduction of this act is still exceedingly good news.  After more than 20 years of aggressive public school reform in the nation’s capital, student proficiency rates for reading and math stand at a dismal thirty percent.  For people living in poverty those numbers are in the 20s.  I have been making the case for a supercharging of school choice in this town to get us out of this rut.  Thankfully, Senator Cruz and Congressman Meadows have answered my call.

 

Gonzaga College High School students research institution’s ties to slavery

In light of the recent discovery that Georgetown University sold 272 slaves in order to pay off debts, this past summer six Gonzaga College High School students wanted to know if their institution had any ties to the dark history of slavery.  The connection was plausible because, as the Washington Post’s Rachel Siegel explained in an article yesterday, before it became Gonzaga, the institution was called the Washington Seminary, which was a annex of Georgetown.

So sixteen and seventeen year olds Jack Boland, Daniel Podratsky, Jack Brown, Hameed Nelson, Joe Boland, and Matthew Johnson, under the supervision of history teacher Ed Donnellan, for a couple of weeks combed Georgetown University’s Booth Family Center for Special Collections.  Their work was spurred by a November 2016 lecture that took place at Gonzaga by Adam Rothman, a Georgetown history professor and the principal curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive.  Following the talk, Mr. Donnellan asked if pupils wanted to volunteer to investigate the school’s past.  Ms. Siegel details what they discovered:

“That earlier research showed how Georgetown had profited from Jesuit-owned plantations that thrived across the region. What about our school, the Gonzaga students wondered. Did it, too, benefit from, and help sustain, the global slave trade of the 19th century?

They found their answers: Profit from those plantations was funneled to Washington Seminary, which at the time was part of Georgetown. And two slaves — Gabriel and another named Isaih — worked at the school for an unknown period of time.”

The students became fascinated by multiple references to Gabriel.  The Post continues the story:

“Multiple mentions of Gabriel being tipped small amounts appear in records kept by the seminary. And there’s a reference in a Georgetown accounts ledger that describes him as ‘a black boy from the Seminary of Washington.’

How Gabriel got to Georgetown isn’t entirely clear, though the students suspect he was brought by a family and used as counterbalance to get $1 off tuition per month. One document suggests he took the place of another slave in 1827.

Another document from a Georgetown accounts ledger notes ‘Gabe’ was sold for $450 to an unknown buyer, with a 5 percent commission going to an Edward Millard, who once attended the Washington Seminary.”

Gonzaga separated from Georgetown in 1858.  The school’s website states that as “the oldest all-boys school in Washington, DC, Gonzaga has a rich legacy that stretches back nearly 200 years. Over the course of that history, Gonzaga has demonstrated and reaffirmed a deep commitment to Jesuit education. And it has chosen to do so in the heart of the inner city—on a street shared with leaders of business and government, and on a block where it ministers to the least fortunate in society.”  The school accepts some students through Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the school voucher plan in the District that offers tuition to private schools.

Hameed Nelson, one of the students doing the research, wonders what they can do now that they have the information about Gabriel.  Mr. Donnellan says he is thinking about building a memorial garden.

FutureEd leaders attempt to re-write history regarding D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program

In a Washington Post editorial that appeared over the weekend, Thomas Toch and Phyllis Jordan, the leaders of the think tank FutureED, attempt to re-write the history of D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the plan that provides private school scholarships to children living in poverty.  We must not let them.  From the piece:

“The theory behind the initiative is to give D.C.’s low-income families more and better educational opportunities by supplying them with tax dollars to send their children to private schools. Fine. But voucher enrollment in the nation’s capital dropped for four straight years, from 1,638 in the 2013-2014 school year to 1,154 in the 2016-2017 year. More striking, greater than half the new students offered vouchers last year didn’t use them.”

The decline in enrollment was a direct result of years of determined effort by the United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on behalf of President Obama to close the program.  Former D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous set the record straight in the Post back in 2012:

“The drop in participants is a natural outgrowth of two unforgiving scheduling decisions. First, the Education Department prevented the program’s administrator from accepting applications after an arbitrary date of March 31 of this year, shutting out anyone who came forward after that cutoff. Then, scholarship lotteries for the 2012-13 school year weren’t allowed to take place until July, far later than many parents could wait to make decisions about where their kids would attend school in the fall. Nobody at the department can give straight answers as to why.

In practical terms, what this means is that only 319 new students were offered scholarships, despite demand for many more.

These roadblocks are part of a long history of the administration’s resolute opposition to the voucher program, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan rescinding 216 scholarships in 2009 to the department ignoring the positive results of a gold-standard study, conducted by its own Institute of Education Sciences, that found that D.C. voucher students graduate at a rate of 91 percent — more than 20 percentage points higher than those who sought a voucher but either didn’t get one or didn’t enroll in the program after being accepted. Because of the delaying tactics of the department, a credible — and federally mandated — new study of the program cannot be conducted unless the program enrolls hundreds of new students next year.”

The obstacles created by the Obama Administration were enough to have Joseph E. Robert, Jr. end his Washington Scholarship Fund’s administration of the OSP back in 2009.  It was then run by the D.C. Youth and Investment Trust Corporation, a group that had no enthusiasm for the job.  In 2015, OSP management was awarded by the Department of Education to Serving Our Children.  SOC has the goal of doubling or tripling the number of scholars participating in the OSP.

Mr. Toch and Ms. Jordan state that the program costs $200 million.  I don’t know where they get their information.  The OSP takes up a minuscule part of the federal budget coming in at $15 million a year.  As part of the three-sector approach equal amounts are awarded to the traditional and charter school sectors for a total of $45 million.  You would really expect more from a think tank associated with Georgetown University.

The FutureED representatives also make a big deal about the percentage of students who elect to utilize the scholarships versus the number awarded.  Let’s just keep in mind that parents fortunately have access to a plethora of school choice in Washington, D.C.  In fact, it is estimated that 75 percent of pupils go to a school other than the one assigned by neighborhood.  We truly have a high performing educational marketplace here in the nation’s capital.