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Public Education: DC Vouchers Program Isn't the Answer

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The promise of a better education at private schools, to escape "failing" and "unsafe" public schools, is often touted by voucher advocates as an option that all families should have. Indeed, this rallying cry was front and center when the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a pilot school vouchers program, was established five years ago, and continues as supporters fight to reauthorize the program today. Public school advocates have consistently raised concerns about the constitutional and policy validity of the program and now, with five years of experience, we also know that it hasn't improved the education of students who are the most in need. The OSP is due to expire this year; it must not be allowed to continue.

President Obama has rightly pledged to eliminate ineffective federal programs; the D.C. OSP is a prime example. Studies conducted by the Department of Education, the latest released just last month, have found that while some students showed modest improvements in reading, the students that this program was created to help -- those from "schools in need of improvement" -- showed "no statistically significant impact on math achievement" or in reading after attending private schools.

The OSP also dilutes funding for education in D.C. public schools. When the OSP was created, the federal government also allocated $20 million to improve the D.C. public schools and $20 million to expand public charter schools -- which together serve 72,000 kids. In the FY 2009 budget, $14 million was spent to better the education of the 1,700 students getting vouchers. Fuzzy math indeed.

A former OSP student who testified on behalf of the voucher program at the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on Wednesday noted the importance of the "moral and character education" she received at Archbishop Carroll, the private Catholic high school she attended through the OSP. Yet, while all American religious groups value religious and moral education and recognize the positive role parochial school play for many children, it is wrong for Americans of varied religious faith (and no religious faith) to be forced to see their tax dollars spent by the government on someone else's religious education.

It's also wrong for taxpayers' money to be used to discriminate. Voucher money goes to private organizations without holding them to crucial civil rights laws. With your money, private schools can decide to hire employees based on religion, or refuse admission to a student because of her gender. Jefferson had a good point when he said that requiring people to see their money used to propagate opinions they don't believe was "sinful and tyrannical."

The reality is, of course, messy. Public schools continue to be plagued by problems and 1,700 students currently participate in the voucher program. President Obama had these students' best interests in mind when he proposed extended funding for the program to keep them in their current schools. However, we wish the responsibility to serve these kids had been assumed by Washington Scholarship Fund that administers the program and whose coffers have increased substantially from private donations over the past five years, in addition to the other private D.C. scholarship programs available. The focus now must be on preventing voucher enthusiasts in Congress from further extending this failed program beyond the President's compromise, or worse, a complete authorization of a D.C. school voucher program.

At this week's Senate hearing on the DC voucher program, OSP voucher recipient Ronald Hollassie remarked that D.C. public schools did not get bad over night, and will not improve over night. He's exactly right. But it's clear that diverting money from public schools to private, and serving the select few over the many is not the way to level a direly lopsided playing field. Taxpayer dollars should go where they are needed most: to improve public education for all of our nation's children.

Rabbi David Saperstein the director and counsel of the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism and an expert in church-state law. Legislative Assistant Arielle Gingold contributed to the writing of this piece.

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