Congress Extends D.C. Voucher Program
Last year, the Republican leadership was able to secure the continuation of funding for the D.C. voucher program as part of the budget deal. While President Obama publicly opposed school vouchers, he ultimately signed the legislation that continued the D.C. program. In a move meant to strengthen America’s public school system and to reassert his opposition to vouchers, President Obama’s budget proposal for 2013 includes no new funding for the D.C. voucher program. But the House of Representatives took President Obama’s budget proposal and virtually ignored it. This week, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and Government marked up the 2013 Financial Services Appropriations bill. Buried in over 150 pages of numbers and legislative jargon was $60 million for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the only voucher program administered by the federal program.
An evaluation of the D.C. voucher program conducted by the Department of Education in 2010 indicated no significant difference in the overall academic achievement of students in the voucher program as compared to students in D.C. public schools. A 2007 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office also found shortcomings in the program’s accountability, including vouchers being used at schools employing teachers without bachelor’s degrees. In almost all cases, vouchers are used at private schools run by religious institutions. This presents complicated constitutional issues because federal and state governments are not permitted to fund religion (or religious education). The D.C. program and other programs run by individual states have wiggled out of the constitutional prohibition by creating “indirect” programs in which voucher money is given to parents who then choose a school for their child. These programs are advertised as offering parents a “choice” of schools for their children, but ultimately the schools are the ones with the choice: Because they are not being directly funded by the government, they are not obligated to take certain students. Courts have repeatedly invalidated direct voucher programs, but the picture is less clear on indirect programs. The most high-profile case on indirect voucher programs, Zelman v. Harris (2002), challenged the constitutionality of Ohio’s voucher program. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the program in a 5-4 decision, stating “where a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause.” But even though courts have upheld the constitutionality of some indirect voucher programs, that does not erase all concerns about such programs. The House of Representatives’ funding of the D.C. voucher program is troubling for three additional reasons: the aforementioned reports showing an apparent lack of difference in academic achievement between public schools and voucher schools, the lack of accountability for private schools receiving government funds, and the diversion of desperately needed funds from the public education system. The Zelman case led many to discontinue the use of church-state separation rhetoric in regard to voucher programs, however the Reform Movement remains deeply committed to combating the religious liberty concerns that arise out of voucher programs, as well as arguing for more investments in public education instead.