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Lawmakers Take D.C. Vouchers Debate to Local High School

Cummings and Chaffetz held a field hearing on D.C. vouchers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Federal lawmakers used the backdrop of a private D.C. high school to delve into the D.C. school voucher program and found themselves amid debate about the propriety of Congress' role in local affairs.  

The chime of school bells occasionally interrupted the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's May 14 field hearing at Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast D.C. to examine the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program's authorization expires this year, and a partisan divide over education funds threatens its future . “The D.C. OSP continues to instill in me the courage and strength to continue on my journey each day and make the most of my opportunities,” said Shirley-Ann Tomdio
, a OSP scholarship recipient who is now a rising junior at George Washington University. Tomdio provided personal testimony into how the program has helped her succeed, but much of the hearing toggled between a broader debate about education funding and specific questions about the program's merits.  

The program, first established in 2004, is a pet project for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and he and other Republicans say it improves education in the District by providing low-income families with scholarships to attend private schools. Democrats argue it is wiser and more consistent with D.C. home rule to spend the money on the public school and charter system in the District.  

"If Congress sincerely wanted to help students in the District it would direct the voucher funds to D.C.’s robust, home rule, public school choice: our publicly accountable charter schools," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. Norton said she supported letting the program continue until the current participants graduate, but she does not support expanding the program to take in new students.  

Her position was troubling to Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who testified at the hearing and has been leading the effort in the Senate to reauthorize the program.  

"As I told [Norton] before I went up there, I would encourage her to take a second look at the program and to think about continuing it for other kids," Scott said after he testified. "Frankly, if it’s good enough for the kids that are currently going through the program, it’s good enough for the kids who are coming behind them.”  

Scott testified the program was helping students graduate at half the cost of public school funding.  

“We’re talking about the difference between spending around $20,000 [per student] for the normal public schools in D.C. versus spending about $8,500 for D.C. Opportunity Scholarships,” said Scott. The program can provide students with up to $8,381 through 8th grade and up to $12,572 through high school. He noted the high school graduation rates for OSP students are more than 90 percent, while D.C. public school students graduate high school at a rate of nearly 60 percent.  

Republicans and Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas, who conducted research on OSP, lauded the higher graduation rate, linking a high school degree with higher income and a better quality of life.  

Wolf conducted a 2010 study of the OSP, which showed the higher graduation rate but also stated that there was "no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement." So while students were graduating at higher rates, their academic skills did not necessarily improve.  

Norton said that, since the study, D.C. public schools have made significant improvements, witnessing its first enrollment growth in nearly three decades, increasing proficiency in math and reading and boosting graduation rates.  

As Norton pointed out, D.C. public school and government officials were notably absent from the hearing. In addition to Wolf, Scott, and Tomdio, Seferash Teferra, a parent of OSP recipients testified in favor of the program. The only dissenting voice was Megan Gallagher, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, whose research also showed there was no conclusive evidence that the voucher program improved student achievement.  

When asked about the absence of D.C. officials, Chaffetz said, “We value their input as well. But we asked the Democrats who they would like to have participate and that’s who they chose,” referring to Gallagher.  

A Democratic staffer fired back, telling CQ Roll Call, "Republicans didn’t have the courtesy to invite the District’s elected officials to testify about a program that is being imposed on their constituents by unaccountable members of Congress. Since we were only allowed one witness out of the five who testified, we selected an expert who could refute the majority’s claim that the program improves academic achievement."  

For Democrats, the absence of a D.C. official highlighted what Norton called an "abuse of power" by imposing the voucher program on D.C. She asked Republicans why they did not nationalize the voucher program, if they supported such a program for D.C.  

“Going back to, why don’t we make this a national program, well, Utah doesn’t want it to be a national program," Chaffetz said in response, harkening back to his home state. "We want the federal government out of our business. We want them out. We want to be able to make those decisions. The question for Washington, D.C., then why are we different? Because they’re not a state. They’re different."  

Chaffetz said he has been talking with Boehner about the program and he expects the committee to bring up the bill to reauthorize the scholarship program in the next few months.  

Related: A Federal Funding Fight Over D.C. Vouchers The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.