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Posts about School Vouchers


How much federal money does DC actually get?

Opponents of DC budget autonomy often cite Congressional funding for the city's budget as justification of federal meddling in DC affairs. But it turns out several states rely on federal largesse even more than the District.

Photo by zzzack on Flickr.

A Congressional appropriations subcommittee recently passed a $637 million payment to the District that includes a number of provisions detailing how the city can and cannot spend money.

That bill will now make its way to the House appropriations committee, and then to the entire House and Senate for final passage. At each stage members of Congress may offer amendments to further restrict the District's authority in matters such as needle exchange, abortion, and gun control.

Many members of Congress believe it is their duty to micromanage the District's local budget. Representative Darrel Issa of California, who chairs the House committee that is primarily responsible for the District, has said that Congress has an obligation to oversee how DC spends its money because "federal taxpayer dollars fund a large portion of the District's budget."

Many people readily agree with that statement. It seems to make sense. Of course the federal government pays for the operations of the federal district. This argument is also often cited by opponents of DC voting rights, who say that DC residents shouldn't have a vote in Congress because they are recipients of so much federal government largesse.

Given these facts, it seems prudent to question just exactly what percentage of the District's budget is paid using federal funds. What exactly qualifies as a "large portion"? 50%? 75%?

Not even close. Federal funds in fact make up only about 25% of the District's local budget.

Of course, having the feds pick up the tab for one-quarter of the city government's expenditures is nothing to sneeze at. Certainly that represents a greater percentage of the local budget than any other state government, right?


The US Census Bureau calculates the total federal funds transferred to state and local governments, and the total revenues collected in each state. The latest available figures (2008) reveal that Mississippi leads the nation with 35% of its combined state and local budget revenue coming from the federal government. Louisiana is a close second at 34%, followed by New Mexico and South Dakota at 27% each.

The District government receives the same percentage of federal funds as Alabama, Montana, Vermont, and West Virginia. In all, 8 states receive as much or more aid than the District. The complete list can be found below.

StateTotal state &
local revenues
Federal fundsPercent
All dollar figures in billions.

Clearly, multiple other states receive a larger percentage of their budget from Congress without any of the oversight that accompanies DC's role as capital city.

Mr. Issa may ultimately be right that Congress has the authority and responsibility to exercise a higher level of oversight regarding the District, but if so it is not because of the false belief that the local government is funded to the hilt with federal dollars.


Will the real education candidate please stand up?

Several weeks ago, we asked the major candidates for the April 26th at-large DC Council special election to answer a set of eight questions about a councilmember's role in specific education policy issues.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

We received answers from four of the candidates: Alan Page, Vincent Orange, Bryan Weaver, and Sekou Biddle. We reviewed the responses to see how well the candidates understood and articulated key education issues, and if their ideas went beyond the slogans and platitudes voters are used to hearing.

Bryan Weaver had some of the most specific and realistic ideas for improving education, especially for disadvantaged students and on funding disparities between DCPS schools and charters. Alan Page also impressed, with the best response about teacher evaluations. Vincent Orange demonstrated some chops in responses to several questions.

The biggest surprise was that the candidate with the longest resume in the education field—Sekou Biddle—had the least specific responses to our education survey. Maybe he's been more specific on the campaign trail.

There is no easy way to summarize the results or say who "won," and my analysis is very subjective, so feel free to read the verbatim responses from verbatim responses and form your own judgment.

Educational opportunity for disadvantaged students

Interestingly, the one question that drew new policy ideas yielded the same policy idea from three of the candidates. When we asked about how we can create more equal educational opportunity for the city's most disadvantaged students, Weaver, Page, and Orange all advocated some form of additional pay for teaching in the poorest neighborhoods.

Weaver's very specific proposal called for up to a $16,000 bonus for a voluntary move and a three-year commitment to teach in the city's lowest-performing schools. Page offered many more specific ideas, but some of them were hard to follow, like paying teachers (doubling the incentives?) if they are effective (based on student input) and teach in a low-performing school. Others included pursuing a balanced plan of facilities modernization rather than favoring selected sites.

Biddle suggested that wide distribution of school performance data was a way to fuel the city's already active system of public school choice to equalize opportunity—the only candidate to take this angle.

But ideas like these were typically sandwiched between platitudes that gave little clue as to the policies we might see him advocate for as a member of the Council. (In fairness, he has already started introducing legislation, such as a bill to make transportation free for low-income families). This may be the strategy of a frontrunner, but it left us to focus on other candidates who provided meatier responses.

Teacher evaluations

Statehood Green candidate Alan Page gave the best response to a question about the the DCPS system of teacher evaluation known as IMPACT. For starters, he accurately described how it currently works, expressing support for it as a good start, suggesting that it could be improved to capture critical thinking, and saying he would hold stakeholder hearings. This would probably fall under micro-management according to Biddle's response, but might help citizens get a better understanding of this fundamental tool for making education policy in the District.

Most candidates did not get specific enough to demonstrate a full understanding of this or other key education policies like management of federal grants like Race to the Top and the lesser known State Longitudinal Education Data system (SLED).

Orange and Bryan Weaver recognized the failure of DC to execute on its SLED grant but nobody offered solutions. Weaver came the closest, asking for transparency in education performance data as well as the issue of surplus properties, advocating for a public database of the city inventory with agency contact information and other data.

Role of the State Board of Education

Vincent Orange had good answers about the role of the State Board of Education (SBOE) and about the disposition of public buildings that once housed under-enrolled DCPS schools. He acknowledged the reduced role of the SBOE, but recognized its value as an elected board that could bring constituent concerns on education to the policy arena. (Though this might be more accurate if so many of its members didn't consider the Board as merely a stepping stone to the Council.)

On buildings, he echoed a concern that other candidates raised for community input and that some raised for revenue generation, but noted that if we don't let charter schools occupy the schools, as they are promised by law, then (non-profit) charter schools will take some other property off the tax rolls.

Charters versus DCPS

We asked a somewhat leading question about whether candidates thought that charter and DCPS schools received fair budget allocations. Charter advocates have long complained that they are not treated fairly relative to the traditional district.

Orange wins bravery points for pushing back on this idea and suggesting that charters in DC are better off relative to their traditional school peers than in other states. He also called for weighted school formula funding and extra funding for magnet programs but did not explain why.

Biddle noted astutely that timeliness of the funds is a critical issue for charter schools. But Weaver really nailed the issue, focusing on facilities allocations and the fact that DC government has exposed itself to a lawsuit over this issue by not taking the issue of facilities funding equity seriously enough.


As readers will remember, Stephen is no fan of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, aka DC vouchers, so he naturally gave points to Weaver and Page for opposing it, while Biddle and Orange said they're for it. Voters who support the program might view this one differently.

Weaver just thinks the dollar amounts are too low to get poor kids into truly elite schools, and added that the voucher program shouldn't subsidize schools to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Biddle defended the program but also referenced a need for funded organizations to comply with the DC Human Rights Act. Orange hinted at the real reason we might want to support the program: the bribe that Congress offered, by including in the program equal funding bonuses for DCPS and DC charters if the program was enacted.

Chancellor selection

We asked some questions that flopped. One was about the selection of a permanent DCPS chancellor. The candidates who responded promptly to our questionnaire (Page and Orange) gave earnest answers and then Mayor Gray announced his selection, prompting the later-responding candidates to say they support Kaya Henderson. Not much to be learned there.

We need more city leaders who are knowledgeable about education and this survey shows is that the choice is not obvious. However, taken together, the candidates' responses can add a new layer to voters' understanding of where the candidates stand, how knowledgeable they are, and what they might do in the education arena if elected.


DC needs school choice, not vouchers

The Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), known informally as the DC school voucher program, was passed by Congress to subsidize private school attendance for low-income students in DC.

Photo by HowardLake on Flickr.

The goal is to provide opportunities for the low-income students to leave low-performing district schools to attend private schools. The program has passionate supporters who testified on its behalf on the Hill recently.

It has been the subject of a rigorous evaluation by the U.S. Department of Education's research arm, which found mixed results. The program had no impact on student test scores but a positive impact on graduation rates (82 person with a voucher offer graduating versus 70 percent in the control group).

So why is it a bad idea? There are three reasons.

1. DC is already a school choice Mecca. We're the last places that needs the OSP.

A blogger for the National Review wrote that reauthorizing this program will "breathe life back into school choice in the nation's capital." Huh?

Poor kids in DC have a richer set of schools to choose from than almost any other city in the country. More than 40 percent of DC's schoolchildren attend schools of choice, mostly through charter schools, but also through the public school choice program within DC Public Schools known as the Out of Boundary transfer program.

The array of options and degree of innovation in DC's charter movement is stunning, ranging from a "Hospitality High" vocational high school to residential programs like SEED, from public policy themed schools like Cesar Chavez to a Chinese immersion International Baccalaureate elementary school.

We have KIPP schools, Lighthouse schools, and Friendship Academies. We have award-winning schools like the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia and E.L. Haynes in Petworth. We have bilingual schools like LAMB and Oyster. Parents clamor to get into popular DCPS schools like Stoddert in NW and the "cluster schools" on Capitol Hill.

And 19 new charter applicants are in the pipeline to be approved, expanding the choices even further. There is lots of room for improvement, but DC has an embarrassment of school choice riches.

2. The OSP lacks broad local support and political legitimacy.

Another problem with locating the voucher program in DC is that the site selection for the program is not dictated by a public policy need, but pure convenience. Because of a quirk on the US Constitution, Congress can legislate policy in the District of Columbia without seeking consent from its residents.

To be sure, there are strong local advocates for the OSP: families who stand to gain $7,500 per year, city leaders who want the extra funding for district and charter schools that comes with the program, and the supporters of the Catholic and other private schools whose tuition is offset by the scholarships.

These constituency groups would be created in any subsidy market. But why DC? And how much support does the program have from the broader community of residents and taxpayers in DC? We simply don't know.

The locally elected City Council hasn't voted on it. There has been no ballot referendum. The one locally elected representative to the Congress, non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, opposes the program. But none of that matters in the strange world of taxation without representation.

3. Public subsidies should come with public accountability.

It seems like a fair proposition that if a school receives public money it should be held accountable for results, even if it is not required to follow any of the regulations of a typical public school. That, in fact, is the premise behind charter schools.

Charters in DC do not have to hire unionized or even certified teachers. They do not have to use the same textbooks or curriculum as DCPS. They can innovate in their staffing models, their methods of instruction, and their school culture, carving out distinct identities and philosophies without seeking central office approval.

In exchange, they must demonstrate that they are teaching children the basic skills set forth in the DC state standards. They do so by participating in the state assessment system known as DC-CAS. They also cannot charge tuition or discriminate in their student admissions. Over-subscribed schools are filled by lottery.

On the other hand, Catholic schools and other private schools in DC do not have to keep up this end of the bargain. They are not accountable for the academic success of their students and they can use tuition and selective admissions to shape their student body as they wish.

Furthermore, unlike publicly funded schools, they can practice religion (80 percent of OSP students attended religious schools in 2008-2009). All of that is fine until they start accepting $7,500 per student through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. At that point, the schools become quasi-public entities but unlike charter schools, with no strings attached.

There are policy alternatives.

Providing educational opportunity for disadvantaged students is a critically important policy goal, but a voucher program in DC is not in the public interest. Instead, there are two policy options that OSP advocates might want to pursue.

First, if they want to keep the program alive, they should seek to move it to Ohio or Connecticut, the home state of the Congressional sponsors, or some other state where the voters can weigh in on whether school vouchers are a good policy and where you can demonstrate a real need to jumpstart school choice.

Second, if policymakers want to promote school choice and educational opportunities for disadvantaged students in DC, they should support policies that affect school site selection, affordable housing, and transportation, i.e. the factors that influence the commuting distance for low-income families and hence their access to school options.

Currently, it is very costly and difficult for charter schools to locate near the city center or near transit nodes. A much more direct method than vouchers for enhancing all forms of school choice would simply be to provide more school bus transportation and more generous facilities funding conditional on site selection that provides easy access to low-income communities.

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