Destruction of the D.C. Voucher System

I supported the Democrats in recent elections because of the many unacceptable policies of the Republicans, including their foreign policy which both got us involved in a foolish war and undermined our national security, their efforts to undermine civil liberties and checks and balances on government power, and their support for the agenda of the religious right. I voted Democratic knowing that this included a fair amount of baggage I wouldn’t like. There may be an example of this described in an editorial in The Washington Post:

EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan has decided not to admit any new students to the D.C. voucher program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools. The abrupt decision — made a week after 200 families had been told that their children were being awarded scholarships for the coming fall — comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it’s clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way…

That, after all, is what this program is about: giving poor families the choice that others, with higher salaries and more resources, take for granted. It’s a choice President Obama made when he enrolled his two children in the elite Sidwell Friends School. It’s a choice Mr. Duncan had when, after looking at the D.C. schools, he ended up buying a house in Arlington, where good schools are assumed. And it’s a choice taken away this week from LaTasha Bennett, a single mother who had planned to start her daughter in the same private school that her son attends and where he is excelling. Her desperation is heartbreaking as she talks about her daughter not getting the same opportunities her son has and of the hardship of having to shuttle between two schools.

It’s clear, though, from how the destruction of the program is being orchestrated, that issues such as parents’ needs, student performance and program effectiveness don’t matter next to the political demands of teachers’ unions. Congressional Democrats who receive ample campaign contributions from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers laid the trap with budget language that placed the program on the block. And now comes Mr. Duncan with the sword.

I am certainly no expert on the voucher system in Washington, D.C. but the impression I’ve had has been that it has been a success. Just as I opposed the Republicans when they placed ideology over reality, I am far more concerned with what works than with Democratic ideology or pleasing constituency groups. This may be an unfortunate downside of our two party system with neither party entirely doing what is right.


  1. 1
    Mark Thompson says:

    I know that this program was put in place by a GOP Congress, but it’s also a program that, to my knowledge, was always extremely popular in DC.  But beyond the ideological problems this demonstrates (and they are many), this is just another example of the federal government (no matter who’s in power) utterly denying citizens of the District of Columbia any kind of right to self-governance in order to score ideological points.

  2. 2
    bruno says:

    it’s pretty easy to declare that vouchers have been successful.  What is not mentioned as much is the fact that those schools can deny students as well.  Which means that the unruly and ‘incorrigible’  students end up in the Public School system.  This drives down their scores by no fault of the Public School system.

    There is plenty to be said about wanting Public Schools to improve the way they offer education; and I’m certainly an advocate for that.  However, picking and choosing which students you’ll teach, is no different than insurance companies picking and choosing whom to fleece with their premiums.

    When comparing, make sure it’s oranges to oranges.

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    The DC voucher system is a popular program. ‘Popular’ does not necessarily mean ‘good’ or ‘successful.’ The DC voucher system is popular with the parents of students who have gotten out of the DC public school system and with parents who believe the existence of the program means they will be able to get their kids out of it too. The DC public school system, on the other hand, is still understaffed and underfunded at the classroom level. It still has too many kids in too few classes in too few schools with too few teachers. Vouchers have done nothing to relieve many of these problems.

    I have a hard time dismissing the tangible benefits that the DC voucher program has given some kids, but it is important to remember the limitations of a voucher program as well. I have never been able to satisfactorily decide whether I am pro- or anti-voucher. It’s a complex issue that the pro-voucher side vastly simplifies, deliberately so in many cases, and that the anti-voucher side may be too quick to dismiss the tactic because they disagree ( rightly) with the larger conservative education strategy. If I had to make a call purely on the utilitarian strength of each side’s argument, I’d have to agree with the anti-voucher people… but it’s still hard to dismiss the tangible good the DC voucher program does for the kids who are on it.

    Closing the DC program to new students is a tougher call. If that money is just being cut entirely, then I am against it. If that money were to be re-budgeted back into the public school budget and applied to schools and classrooms rather than administration, I’d be for it.

  4. 4
    Ellen says:

    If you read the research, you’d know that DC voucher program in DC is neither popular nor efffective.  In a Zogby poll before it was enacted , 3/4s of DC voters said they opposed it.  Of course, they never had a chance to vote on it – it was imposed by Congress.

    Among the highest peforming students, The research shows no improvement in math and only slight improvement in reading, which was matched by a control group of students whowere offered, but did not use vouchers.  

    Among the lowest performing students, there was no improvment in reading or math.

    DOn’t believe me?  read the research yourself – it’s more than anyone posting here seems to have done.

  5. 5
    bruno says:

    I was born and raised in Europe. In the country where I grew up, the tax dollar is attached to the student, not the school district.  In other words: parents can choose any school they like (private, public, religious).  The school chosen will get the tax dollars for that student.

    Of course, for that to work, we’d have to get rid of the conservative notion of keeping all education decisions at the local level.  Educational standards must be set at the Federal level, to ensure that education is fairly equitable and rigorous across the nation.

    I went to a Catholic boarding school, because they had great teachers. Yes some of those teachers were actually priests and ‘brothers’ (The school was attached to an Abbey)  We had 1 hour of religious education per week and we went to church twice a week.  At NO time was there ever any religious interference with science classes or any other classes for that matter.

    The upside of such a system would be to break the monopoly of the current school system.  Schools would have to compete with each other to offer the best education possible.  (I even went to a school that was not even in the same town where I lived)

    Teachers would have to take an interest in really teaching their students, in order to stay employed instead of doing the “No Child Left Behind” drama of passing them trough. 

    In my opinion, it’s a win-win solution.  Schools are competitive, the best teachers make more money, and parents have choices on where to send their kids to school.  Sure it would mean a drastic overhaul of the current system, with the inevitable fight by the constituencies who feel threatened by change.

    PS: For those wondering, I’m not a religious person at all.  So, getting a bit of religion in my education did not corrupt me.  If anything else it opened my eyes and helped me decide that organized religion is not my cup of tea.

  6. 6
    Eclectic Radical says:


    I’m entirely in favor of real education reform attaching tax dollars to students and not to school districts or schools. The problem is that the voucher systems advocated on the right benefit a small percentage of students at the expense of the majority of the students in public school, who do not receive anything like equal per student spending.

    My comments about religious schools are not because of a disdain for religious schools or religious education. My mother is a teacher and part time preacher with a Master of Divinities from the Claremont School of Theology. I am not anti-religion or opposed to a religious presence in education (though I believe public schools must be secular in a nation without a state religion and professing religious plurality) because it is religious.

    However, there are constitutional questions linked to widespread state or federal funding for religious schools and all those schools are already tax-exempt under US law. Subsidizing religious schools, directly, through vouchers, when they are already indirectly subsidized through tax exempt status, is questionable.

    It should also be noted that a considerable number of supporters of school vouchers actively seek to get their kids out of public school because of the science classes and they wish to send their kids to schools that do not teach genuine science.

    Tax money genuinely linked to the students is a very good idea, but school vouchers are simply tax dollars spent on some students but not others. No one is suggesting matching school voucher expenditures with equal investments in kids going to public school.


    I am aware of the polls and the statistics. I am aware of the massive opposition to school vouchers before they were imposed by Congress and I am aware of the questionable nature of whether the students have genuinely improved. However, a significant number of minority kids have gotten out of slum schools in DC and into middle class parochial schools and their parents love vouchers. A slightly larger number of parents who want the same for their kids feel the same. The voucher program is extremely popular with many black parents and that is a fact. Arguing against its popularity with a poll predating the program’s imposition doesn’t refute that.

  7. 7
    bruno says:

    Eclectic Radical:

    That’s why I also stated that education should be Federalized, specifically to avoid religious nuts from taking their kids out of good schools to ‘make’ them learn unscientific garbage that supports the bible.

    I’m not advocating that religion is taught in Public Schools, merely that i have no problem with religious schools competing with Public schools to get the students.  As stated above, only if Religious schools are required to teach a real science curriculum and not one based on intelligent design or creationism.

  8. 8
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I have no problem with public and private schools ‘competing’, but it should not be taken as a foregone conclusion (which is too much the case when it comes to issues of ‘school choice’) that competition will magically make public schools better places without more sweeping policy reforms. This is the crux of the current problem, with conservatives proclaiming competition as the magic cure to all education woes when the simple fact is that spending more federal money on private schools and not on public schools undermines the ability to public schools to compete.

    I don’t know if federalizing education is the solution either. Many of the flaws in our current system are the fault of over-regulation… as much as I hate to use that term. Schools and classes have been standardized in an attempt to make them ‘teacher proof’ and ‘student proof’ in a way that encourages an industrial assembly line approach to teaching that has been failing us for decades now.

  9. 9
    Fritz says:

    Eclectic — I think you are misunderstanding something.  The “industrial assembly line approach” is not an accident and it is not a failure.  It is a specific design goal.  Modern education serves to teach young people to sit still at desks for 8 to 10 hours a day.  If 20% can’t handle it and break — that’s simply indstrial wastage built into the COGS.

  10. 10
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I am aware of that particular view of the public education system, yes. Accidentally or not, it does not vitiate the fact that the education system has failed society and students more than it has succeeded in the last three to four decades. Whether by design or by accident (and I believe there IS an element of design in the system, yes), it is simply a bad system. The simple fact is that education is not something that can be done by a system. One must have a student and a teacher and they must cooperate. The student must learn and the teacher must teach. The system prevents the latter almost entirely, while greatly over-regulating the former.

    As to how much of the current system is truly designed as intended and how much is simply natural administrative self-entrenchment, however, I am unsure. I certainly know that there is a design behind schooling. How much of the current system flows directly from that design and how much from other factors is harder to say.

    When something can be explained by conspiracy and incompetence with equal logic, empirical probabilities suggest incompetence to be the more likely explanation.

  11. 11
    Christopher Skyi says:

    “Of course, for that to work, we’d have to get rid of the conservative notion of keeping all education decisions at the local level.  Educational standards must be set at the Federal level, to ensure that education is fairly equitable and rigorous across the nation.”

    Bruno — sound  good, but consider this: Children remind adults to act responsibly on our streets.

    “Children from across the country (U.K.) will be very publicly calling upon the small minority of people who think it is acceptable to act anti-socially on our streets and in our towns to change their ways and take responsibility for their actions.
    Competitions are being run in schools in 20 towns and cities across England that have received nearly £500,000 funding from the Government’s Respect Task Force to introduce innovative new ‘Talking CCTV’, aimed at getting the public to reflect on their behaviour and the example they are setting to others, especially children. The competitions and activities, such as designing posters that challenge bad behaviour and taking part in neighbourhood litter picks, help educate children about acceptable behaviour while at the same time they are encouraged to use their ‘pester power’ in a positive way – reminding grown -ups  how to behave. 

    The winning schoolchildren will be invited to become the ‘voice’ of the Talking CCTV in their town or city’s CCTV control room later this year.
    Talking CCTV allows operators to talk directly to those involved, when they spot irresponsible behaviour, asking people to stop doing something or to make amends.
    Home Secretary John Reid said:

    “We are committed to tackling anti-social behaviour; promoting good behaviour and tackling bad.”

    Ah, the Orwellian dreams of the radical left realized through the Federalization of education.

    No thank you.

  12. 12
    Christopher Skyi says:

    “If you read the research, you’d know that DC voucher program in DC is neither popular nor efffective.  In a Zogby poll before it was enacted , 3/4s of DC voters said they opposed it. ”

    Well after it’s enactment, it definitely became  popular, and it’s even more popular  now:

    DC School Choice: Students Speak Out in Favor of D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program

    And for good reason (Ellen should read her own “evidence” more closely). Ellen cite’s this latest 2009 Institute of Education Sciences study (a research arm of the  Education Department) as “proof” it’s not effective:

    Actually, if you really READ it, it shows just the opposite of what Ellen maintains:

    Overall, the study found that students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school. However, as a group, students who had been in the lowest-performing public schools did not show those gains. There was no difference in math performance between the groups.”

    While the kids are getting screwed by the destruction of the voucher system, there is a silver lining: if leftest such as Ellen and Bruno keep getting their way on this issue,  Democrats will fail to realize that school choice is the future of their party, and this will greatly weaken their base as history buries them.

    However, I can certainty understand and respect liberals acting on principle, and if public schools are what they really believe in, for the future of American and their own children, then I guess it makes sense, uh — oh wait:

    Obama Daughters to Attend Private School in DC

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