Washington, D.C.'s school voucher program, a political football often caught up in congressional budget battles, suffers from poor oversight, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Friday.
School vouchers funnel public money into private, and often religious, schools. President George W. Bush signed a law in 2004 that created the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in 2004, the first federally funded system of school vouchers. Since then, Congress has spent $152 million helping 5,000 students attend private schools. Voucher proponents say they help level the educational playing field between wealthy Americans and low-income families who feel stuck in poor public schools and can't afford to turn elsewhere. Critics argue that vouchers take money away from ailing public school systems, and in some cases strain the separation of church and state.
GAO looked into the program at the behest of Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), as questions swirled around whether it was providing as wide a variety of school choice as intended. Two years ago, more than half of voucher students were attending just 15 percent of the private schools that had opted in to the program.
According to the report, D.C.'s voucher program fails to provide adequate enrollment and pricing information about participating schools to families. The D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation oversees outreach and administration for the program, but according to the report, it fails in a few significant ways.
"The Trust's internal controls do not ensure effective implementation and oversight of OSP. Adequate policies and procedures can provide reasonable assurance of effective, efficient operations, reliable financial reporting, and compliance with applicable laws," GAO wrote. "However, the Trust's policies and procedures do not include a process for verifying eligibility information that schools self report. As a result, the Trust cannot ensure that schools are eligible to participate in the program and, therefore, risks providing federal dollars to students to attend schools that do not meet standards required by law."
The trust also fails to keep adequate documentation of schools' information, the report found. Scholarships are awarded through a lottery that prioritizes certain families based on income; but due to administrative failings, the GAO reports, the "Trust's ability to provide accurate priority categories" is questionable. The trust was also late in submitting financial reports, in some cases as long as two years after their deadline.
The report also faults the U.S. Education Department for insufficient oversight.
The GAO recommends that the trust update its policies, and that the U.S. Education Department do a better job of scrutinizing and assisting the voucher program. GAO also wants the voucher lottery to be held earlier in the school year.
The Education Department objected to some aspects of the report. "We take the issues the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has raised in the report very seriously, and we will continue to consider them carefully," wrote deputy secretary Nadya Chinnoy Dabby in a letter responding to the report. But she added that the GAO doesn't seem to appreciate the context of the scholarship program's transition into the control of the trust. "We believe the draft report does not fully reflect the Trust's efforts to provide complete and timely information about participating schools," she added.
The trust responded by saying that it's working to implement the recommendations in the report, and is dealing with issues it inherited. "The trust inherited the Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2010 from the Washington Scholarship Fund and we inherited the processes that were in place then," the trust's executive director Ed Davies told The Huffington Post. "Now that we have been made aware of where there have been deficiencies, the new management team which came into place in December 2012, we've been working to upgrade all the processes. ... We are working with the GAO, with the Department of Education, to implement the recommendations that were made."
The report notes that families said they were happy with the program itself, but expressed concerns about a lack of reliable information.
In a podcast released to accompany the report, its author George Scott said his team visited 10 schools and interviewed parents and officials. "They felt these schools were safer ... but they also raised some issues with the information they received," he said of parents.
"From our perspective, there's clearly room for improvement, particularly in the area of internal controls," Scott said. "We take issue with the amount of oversight the Department of Education is providing to the Trust." Scott noted that the report is not a condemnation of vouchers per se, but rather a look at the administration of one specific voucher program.
School vouchers have long a subject of political controversy. In his recent budgets, President Barack Obama has zeroed out the D.C. program, but after some sparring with Republicans, including House Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), it was ultimately reauthorized.
Most recently, the fight over vouchers has exploded in Louisiana, when the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the state, arguing that its school voucher program, which Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has dramatically expanded, violates long-standing desegregation orders in 34 school districts. Since then, the department has scaled back its claims, but still wants to stop the state from awarding vouchers to students in those districts for the 2014-15 school year until it has gotten pre-clearance from a federal court. Jindal has excoriated Obama for the suit, inviting him to tour some voucher schools himself.