GOP law­mak­ers could order D.C. school changes

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY PERRY STEIN

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had just a few min­utes to speak to hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple at the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton. The mas­sive au­di­ence was mostly protest­ing against Pres­i­dent Trump dur­ing his first full day in of­fice, and Bowser hinted at how she might deal with the new ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies.

The mayor said she would stand up for women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights and for ad­dress­ing cli­mate change, and be­fore she launched the crowd into a chant of “leave us alone,” she gave a nod to the city’s schools: “And we have to stand up for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, be­cause that’s what our kids need.”

The na­tion’s cap­i­tal has a re­la­tion­ship with the fed­eral govern­ment un­like any other ju­ris­dic­tion in the United States. Res­i­dents of the city pay lo­cal taxes, but Congress has the power to tell the city how to spend its money; elected of­fi­cials in Congress have of­ten used this power to push their par­ti­san poli­cies, some­times in op­po­si­tion to the city’s lib­eral laws. That has been true with abor­tion and guns, and as Bowser noted, ed­u­ca­tion.

With a new pres­i­dent — and his po­lar­iz­ing pick for ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, Betsy DeVos — push­ing for non­tra­di­tional school choice poli­cies, there’s a pos­si­bil­ity that a Re­pub­li­can-con­trolled Congress could have an ef­fect on D.C. schools. City lead­ers are vow­ing to pro­tect them from that im­pact.

“My fear in this arena is that they will con­tinue to give back to the states the re­spon­si­bil­ity of ed­u­ca­tion in ev­ery sce­nario ex­cept for the Dis­trict of Columbia,” said D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the coun­cil’s ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee. A new fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion law took power from Wash­ing­ton and shifted it to the states, and DeVos has in­di­cated a strong de­sire to give states and lo­cal­i­ties more con­trol.

Congress and the new fed­eral ad­min­is­tra­tion prob­a­bly will pur­sue an ex­pan­sion of school choice poli­cies, such as vouch­ers for pri­vate and parochial schools in the Dis­trict, ac­cord­ing to Lind­sey Burke, the di­rec­tor of ed­uca-

Ex­pan­sion of vouch­ers among pos­si­bil­i­ties in choice-heavy city

tion pol­icy at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, a con­ser­va­tive think tank.

Such a move would make the Dis­trict — al­ready a dar­ling of choice ad­vo­cates be­cause of its char­ter sec­tor, which ed­u­cates nearly half of the pub­lic school stu­dents in the city — even more choice-heavy, prob­a­bly with vouch­ers that could go to stu­dents other than just those from low-in­come fam­i­lies. The city’s cur­rent voucher pro­gram al­lows low-in­come fam­i­lies to take tax­payer dol­lars to the pri­vate schools of their choos­ing.

“Ex­pand­ing the voucher sys­tem or ex­pand­ing choice through an ed­u­ca­tion voucher sys­tem would be great,” Burke said. “D.C. is un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of Congress at the end of the day. There are only a hand­ful of mea­sures at a fed­eral level ad­vanc­ing school choice, and since D.C. is a fed­eral city, that unique re­la­tion­ship makes it ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Mil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral fund­ing for lo­cal pub­lic schools are tied to the voucher pro­gram, known as the D.C. Op­por­tu­nity Schol­ar­ship Pro­gram, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for key city lead­ers to fully re­buke the leg­is­la­tion with­out risk­ing nec­es­sary fund­ing for pub­lic schools. The pro­gram gives mil­lions of dol­lars each year to the tra­di­tional pub­lic school sys­tem, char­ter schools and to­ward vouch­ers. Burke said it is pos­si­ble that Congress could re­dis­tribute the money so that goes to vouch­ers and less to the other sec­tors.

Bowser has met with the pres­i­dent and Re­pub­li­can mem­bers of Congress and said she has em­pha­sized that the Dis­trict al­ready has a ro­bust ar­ray of school choice, and she thinks it works. She said she likes the three­p­ronged ap­proach — with fed­eral funds go­ing to the tra­di­tional pub­lic school sys­tem, char­ter schools and vouch­ers — and hopes it re­mains that way.

But Jennifer Bud­off, the D.C. Coun­cil bud­get di­rec­tor, said that Congress has wide lat­i­tude in its fund­ing of ed­u­ca­tion in the Dis­trict, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to make im­me­di­ate changes to the city’s fis­cal bud­get.

“His­tor­i­cally, when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion, they have only done stuff that is ad­di­tive, but they have the power to do what­ever they want,” Bud­off said.

D.C. Pub­lic Schools re­ceives $906 mil­lion in an­nual fund­ing, with $762 mil­lion com­ing from lo­cal cof­fers. Char­ter schools re­ceive $724 mil­lion in lo­cal fund­ing.

The Her­itage Foun­da­tion and DeVos are ad­vo­cates of ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing ac­counts, which al­low qual­i­fy­ing fam­i­lies to use pub­lic funds to pay for pri­vate school tu­ition, tu­tor­ing, on­line ed­u­ca­tion and other ser­vices.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion last year that would have re­quired the Dis­trict to set up ed­u­ca­tion sav­ings ac­counts and give lo­cal tax­payer dol­lars to peo­ple who want to send their chil­dren to pri­vate schools. Del. Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton (D-D.C.) and lo­cal lead­ers as­sailed the leg­is­la­tion, and it didn’t pass.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion last week that would de­vote more fed­eral fund­ing to voucher pro­grams for chilmore dren to at­tend the pri­vate schools and, in some cases, the pub­lic schools of their choice. The leg­is­la­tion would, in part, ex­pand el­i­gi­bil­ity for the D.C. Op­por­tu­nity Schol­ar­ship Pro­gram by al­low­ing low-in­come D.C. stu­dents who cur­rently at­tend a pri­vate school to qual­ify.

D.C. Pub­lic Schools is pour­ing money into bol­ster­ing its neigh­bor­hood schools. Al­lo­cat­ing more money to vouch­ers and less to tra­di­tional pub­lic schools could com­pro­mise the ef­forts. Bowser said she left her meet­ing with Trump think­ing that he had a grasp of the D.C. school sys­tem. She said he had just met with for­mer D.C. schools chan­cel­lor Michelle Rhee, who had been ru­mored to be a po­ten­tial nom­i­nee for ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary.

“He seemed to know about D.C. schools,” Bowser said. “He is fa­mil­iar with how we’ve been able to in­no­vate.”

Grosso said that he hopes DeVos won’t win ap­proval in the Se­nate, and he is push­ing on his so­cial-me­dia ac­counts and other pub­lic plat­forms for her re­jec­tion. He said he hopes the next ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary learns from what has and hasn’t worked in D.C. ed­u­ca­tion, point­ing to stud­ies that show stu­dents who re­ceive vouch­ers and go to pri­vate schools are not achiev­ing at a higher level than those who don’t.

A Wash­ing­ton Post in­ves­ti­ga­tion in 2012 found that qual­ity con­trols for schools ac­cept­ing vouch­ers in the Dis­trict were lack­ing. Hun­dreds of D.C. stu­dents were us­ing their voucher dol­lars to at­tend schools that were un­ac­cred­ited or were in un­con­ven­tional set­tings, such as a fam­ily-run kinder­garten-through-12th-grade school op­er­at­ing out of a store­front, a Na­tion of Is­lam school based in a con­verted res­i­dence in the Dean­wood area, and a school built around the phi­los­o­phy of a Bul­gar­ian psy­chother­a­pist.

“It is con­sid­ered a guinea pig ap­proach to D.C., but they never stop to learn from this ex­per­i­ment,” Grosso said. “Vouch­ers don’t work in D.C.”

JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ad­dresses the crowd dur­ing the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton.

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