Norton Says D.C.’s Home-Rule Alternative to DCPS is Charter Schools, Not Private School Vouchers

Norton Says D.C.’s Home-Rule Alternative to DCPS is Charter Schools, Not Private School Vouchers

Norton Releases Opening Statement for Voucher Hearing, Thursday

WASHINGTON, D.C. – May 14, 2015 – (RealEstateRama) — The Office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today released an advance copy of her prepared opening statement ahead of a House Oversight and Government Committee field hearing tomorrow, Thursday, May 14, 2015, at 9:30 a.m., at Archbishop Carroll High School (4300 Harewood Rd. NE) on reauthorizing the District of Columbia private school voucher program. The controversial program, which provides federal funds for low-income D.C. students to attend private schools in D.C., was first imposed by Congress against the District’s will in 2004. The authorization for the experimental five-year program expired in 2009, but was reauthorized for five more years in 2011, when Republicans took back control of the House.

Norton said that beyond the naked violation of D.C. home rule for the sake of continuing a Republican political pet project, independent studies of the D.C. voucher program have shown no significant improvement in the math and reading test scores of D.C. voucher students. Norton emphasized that she supports current voucher students remaining in the program until they graduate from high school, but her opposition, and that of the Obama administration, is to reauthorizing the program for new students.

Norton said D.C. should be able to spend education dollars on the District’s popular and thriving home-rule alternative to District of Columbia Public Schools, D.C. public charter schools, which badly need more funds to meet the demand represented by long waiting lists. She questioned Republicans’ support of private school vouchers, as well as their concern for D.C. children, noting that while imposing a student voucher program on the District, a national voucher program is “conspicuously absent” from the pending Republican-introduced legislation in the House and Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Norton, who worked with former Speaker Newt Gingrich to pass the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995, which created the District’s charter school system, said that if Republicans were really interested in school choice, they would provide additional funding for D.C.’s public charter school system, rather than unilaterally funding a voucher program.

In her opening statement, Norton said, “We appreciate congressional interest in our children…We ask only for congressional respect for the people of the District, who have built their own home-rule public school choice alternative to their traditional public schools. Any new funding for education in the District should reinforce the hard work of our city, parents and residents, who have shown the nation that they know how to build a school choice system.”

Norton’s opening statement, as prepared for delivery, follows:

Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

“D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: Making the American Dream Possible”

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

May 14, 2015

I would like to welcome my constituents testifying and in the audience. I applaud your commitment to education. I want to be clear: my remarks today are addressed only to my colleagues in Congress, not to my constituents. As a mother, I understand and applaud parents who take advantage of every educational opportunity available for their children. Along with President Obama and my Democratic House and Senate colleagues, I support allowing the current District of Columbia voucher students to remain in the program until graduation, but we do not support admitting new students.

The Republican House is again seeking to impose its will on the District without the consent of D.C.’s locally elected government or me, its only elected representative in Congress. Within the last month, this committee and then the House tried but failed to overturn a local D.C. anti-discrimination law. Adding insult to injury, this committee did not invite any locally elected D.C. officials to testify on that law or at today’s hearing. If the D.C. government wanted to create a private school voucher program, it has the legislative authority under the Home Rule Act to do so.

Republicans seem to lack the courage of their convictions on private school vouchers. Both the Republican House and Senate are considering legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Conspicuously absent from their bill is a nationwide private school voucher program. Why would Republicans impose a voucher program on the District, but not propose expanding the program nationally? Could it be that Republicans recognize the lack of national support for vouchers? Since 1970, every single state referendum to establish a voucher program or tuition tax credit has failed, and none of the votes were even close. Americans want public funds used for publicly accountable schools.

The stated purpose of the D.C. voucher program is to help low-income students from low-performing public schools to improve academically. However, the D.C. voucher program, which provides federal money to publicly unaccountable private schools, has failed to improve academic achievement. In the past, my D.C. voucher parents have visited me and many said they had tried to enroll in our popular D.C. public charter schools, but could not because of long waiting lists. 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.

The D.C. voucher results are consistent with studies that show that school voucher programs across the country have failed to improve academic achievement. The latest data available on the D.C. voucher program is from a 2010 U.S. Department of Education (DOE) study. The study, conducted by one of the Republicans’ own witnesses today, Professor Patrick Wolf, found “no conclusive evidence that the [program] affected student achievement,” as measured by math and test scores. Most important, the study found there were no “significant impacts” on the achievement of students who the program was designed to most benefit, students who previously attended public schools identified for improvement, corrective action or restructuring under ESEA.

While the DOE study found that the D.C. voucher program improved high school graduation rates, the study did not examine the rigor of the voucher schools’ curriculums or graduation requirements. In fact, the higher graduation rates, together with flat test scores, suggest that voucher students may have attended schools with less rigorous curriculums and graduation requirements.

The DOE study did find that D.C. vouchers improved parents’ ratings of school safety and satisfaction. However, the study did not find that vouchers improved the ratings of school safety and satisfaction for the most important group, the students themselves.

Although I am a proud graduate of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and strongly support our traditional public schools, I have always also supported public charter school alternatives for those parents who are dissatisfied with DCPS. Children cannot wait until traditional public schools meet the necessary standards. This is true even though DCPS has made some of the most impressive improvements in the country by any measure. DCPS enrollment has grown by 2,357 students in the last four years, the first enrollment growth in 39 years. In 2014, DCPS students reached their highest proficiency rates ever in reading and math. In the last eight years, the percentage of students who were proficient in reading increased 13 percentage points to 47.7 percent and in math increased 22.6 percentage points to 51.1 percent. I challenge the D.C. voucher schools to demonstrate comparable improvement. In the last four years, the four-year graduation rate for DCPS has increased from 53 percent to 58 percent. DCPS test scores and graduation rates are comparable to other urban school districts.

D.C. charter schools are publicly funded and independently run under the supervision of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. D.C. charter schools are tied for the third largest percentage of public charter school students in the nation, educating 37,684 students, or 44 percent, of D.C. public school students. The first public charter school was opened in 1996, and there are now 112 public charter schools. D.C. charter schools have higher educational achievement and attainment than DCPS. D.C. charter schools outperform DCPS across traditionally disadvantaged groups, including African-American and low-income students, and have a higher percentage of such students, precisely the students the D.C. voucher program was ostensibly designed to serve. Sixty percent of D.C. charter school students are proficient in math and 53.4 percent are proficient in reading. Seventy-nine percent of D.C. charter students graduate.

It is important to review the role of Congress in the creation of D.C. charter schools and vouchers to understand the democratic and undemocratic way to help the District. We worked collaboratively with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich to create the robust charter school system we have today. Newt came to me and said he was considering a voucher program in D.C. I told him of public opposition to vouchers in the city, and urged that he defer to the already existing fledgling charter school system that had been created by the District. At the time, the charter school law in the District had attracted a few charters. Working together with Speaker Gingrich, we were able to get Congress to pass the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995, which created a new charter system in D.C., leading to the large scale, robust alternative public charter school system enthusiastically supported by D.C. residents today. The long waiting lists at our charter schools are the best evidence of their quality and their embrace by our parents and residents as the city’s own home-rule choice. Yet Republicans in Congress later imposed a voucher program on D.C. anyway, and are attempting to do so again.

I want to clear up a misconception about the D.C. voucher program funding. The original authorization of the program contained funding for vouchers only. It did not contain any funding for DCPS or charter schools. I insisted that DCPS and charter schools be funded, too. I worked with the then-Archbishop of Washington, Theodore Edgar McCarrick, who strongly supported vouchers and the majority of the voucher students attended Catholic schools, to get funding also for DCPS and charter schools. The current authorization includes that funding.

If Republicans in Congress want to give the District funds for education, why not ask us how we could best use the money? Is that not the way to treat taxpaying American citizens? DCPS is improving so significantly, and DCPS and our public charter schools are in such great demand that many of the schools have long waiting lists. Why, then, expand a congressionally sponsored private school program for the city? The answer, of course, is abuse of power. It is the same congressional abuse of power and disrespect evidenced by Congress trying to overturn two D.C. anti-discrimination laws.

We appreciate congressional interest in our children. We ask that all of them now in the voucher program be allowed to continue in it until they graduate high school. We ask only for congressional respect for the people of the District, who have built their own home-rule public school choice alternative to their traditional public schools. Any new funding for education in the District should reinforce the hard work of our city, parents and residents, who have shown the nation that they know how to build a school choice system. They should be heralded by Congress as an example to most U.S. school districts, which have, in contrast to the District, significantly limited school choice and spurned public charter schools. D.C. residents know what to do without the benefit of congressional paternalism, instruction or intervention.

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