The opac­ity of school choice

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MANDY MCLAREN AND EMMA BROWN

Mil­lions go to D.C.’s vouch­ers. Agen­cies tightly guard how and where that money is used.

Congress ded­i­cates $15 mil­lion a year to a pro­gram that helps low-in­come D.C. stu­dents pay tu­ition at pri­vate schools, but it’s im­pos­si­ble for tax­pay­ers to find out where their money goes: The ad­min­is­tra­tor of the D.C. voucher pro­gram re­fuses to say how many stu­dents at­tend each school or how many pub­lic dol­lars they re­ceive.

It’s also not clear how stu­dents are per­form­ing in each school. When Congress cre­ated the pro­gram in 2004, it did not re­quire in­di­vid­ual pri­vate schools to dis­close any­thing about stu­dent per­for­mance. And pri­vate schools can con­tinue re­ceiv­ing voucher dol­lars no mat­ter how poorly their stu­dents fare.

Pres­i­dent Trump has said the D.C. voucher pro­gram is “what win­ning for young chil­dren and kids from all over the coun­try looks like,” and he has freed up mil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral funds to ex­pand it, al­low­ing nearly triple the num­ber of stu­dents to par­tic­i­pate by next school year.

He and Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos have also pledged to ex­pand pri­vate-school choice pro­grams across the coun­try, many of which now make it dif­fi­cult to track how tax dol­lars are spent and whether they’re im­prov­ing stu­dent achieve­ment.

For DeVos, who has spent three decades sup­port­ing the ex­pan­sion of statelevel voucher pro­grams, it’s more im­por­tant for par­ents to have choices than it is

for the pub­lic to have data.

“Par­ents know — or can fig­ure out — what learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment is best for their child, and we must give them the right to choose where that may be,” DeVos said in May. Ev­ery school re­ceiv­ing pub­lic money should be held ac­count­able, she said, “but they should be di­rectly ac­count­able to par­ents and com­mu­ni­ties, not to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., bu­reau­crats.”

Of the 10 largest pri­vateschool choice pro­grams in the na­tion, at least three do not pub­lish in­for­ma­tion about how many stu­dents are served at each school or how much money those schools re­ceive, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post review.

Seven of the pro­grams ei­ther don’t re­quire that voucher stu­dents take stan­dard­ized tests to make it pos­si­ble to com­pare their per­for­mance with that of peers at pub­lic schools, or, if they do, they do not re­quire schools to make those scores pub­lic.

And at least eight have no min­i­mum per­for­mance re­quire­ments, mean­ing that a school can do ex­ceed­ingly poorly and con­tinue to re­ceive tax­payer funds.

Asked to com­ment on whether DeVos views the lack of pub­lic in­for­ma­tion as a prob­lem, Liz Hill, her spokes­woman, wrote that par­ents don’t need “more data sets, they need more op­tions.”

“A child’s progress — or lack thereof — is fully trans­par­ent to his or her par­ents,” Hill said. “When a ro­bust choice pro­gram ex­ists and stu­dents are no longer stuck in a man­dated sys­tem, the ul­ti­mate ac­count­abil­ity for schools is whether or not par­ents choose to send their chil­dren there.”

The view that par­ents can hold schools ac­count­able for re­sults is a striking de­par­ture from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach over the past 15 years, which — un­der pres­i­dents of both par­ties — has sought to im­prove pub­lic schools by pub­li­ciz­ing test scores and forc­ing change at those with per­sis­tently low achieve­ment.

DeVos has de­clared that ap­proach a fail­ure for too many strug­gling stu­dents, and her pub­lic ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of al­ter­na­tives to tra­di­tional pub­lic schools cen­ters on the ex­pe­ri­ences of in­di­vid­ual stu­dents whose lives were changed by the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend the school of their choice.

There is no ques­tion that some stu­dents have ben­e­fited tremen­dously from the D.C. voucher pro­gram, known as the Op­por­tu­nity Schol­ar­ship Pro­gram. Quien­ten Ben­nett, a re­cent grad­u­ate of the District’s St. John’s Col­lege High, turned down the U.S. Mer­chant Marine Acad­emy and Ge­orge­town Univer­sity to at­tend the U.S. Naval Acad­emy — a school that ad­mits just 9 per­cent of ap­pli­cants — in the fall.

His mother, Ver­nell Ben­nett, is a sin­gle par­ent who lives in what she de­scribed as “the bad part” of South­east Wash­ing­ton. She said none of her son’s pres­ti­gious col­lege op­tions would have been avail­able to him if not for the voucher that al­lowed him to at­tend St. John’s, where tu­ition tops $18,000 year.

Her two other chil­dren also D.C. vouch­ers, grad­u­ated from pri­vate high schools and went on to well-re­garded col­leges. “The Op­por­tu­nity Schol­ar­ship has given three of my kids the op­por­tu­nity to not be a statis­tic,” Ben­nett said. “It in­tro­duced them to another world.”

But crit­ics of the D.C. voucher pro­gram — the only one funded by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment — say there’s no way to know whether the Ben­netts’ ex­pe­ri­ence is the norm or the ex­cep­tion.

D.C.’s char­ter ex­per­i­ment

A Repub­li­can-led Congress cre­ated the District’s pro­gram in 2004, and al­though it is small — serv­ing only 1,100 stu­dents this year — it has at­tracted at­ten­tion over the years as an ex­per­i­ment in school choice con­ducted in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

It cur­rently pro­vides poor chil­dren with schol­ar­ships of up to $8,452 to at­tend a pri­vate el­e­men­tary or mid­dle school and up to $12,679 for high school.

The pro­gram has un­doubt­edly al­lowed some stu­dents an es­cape from trou­bled neigh­bor­hood schools. But there have long been ques­tions about whether over­sight of the pro­gram is ad­e­quate.

Pri­vate schools re­ceiv­ing D.C. voucher dol­lars must be­come ac­cred­ited by 2021, but they oth­er­wise face few re­quire­ments be­yond show­ing that they are in good fi­nan­cial stand­ing and com­ply with ba­sic health and safety laws.

Schools must also ad­min­is­ter na­tion­ally stan­dard­ized math and read­ing tests to voucher stu­dents each year, and they must re­lease those scores to par­ents and to the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment to be used in eval­u­a­tions of the pro­gram.

But they do not re­port test re­sults pub­licly, as pub­lic schools are re­quired to, which makes it im­pos­si­ble for pol­i­cy­mak­ers — not to men­tion prospec­tive stu­dents and their fam­i­lies — to com­pare how voucher stu­dents fare at dif­fer­ent schools.

On the whole, voucher re­cip­i­ents per­formed worse on stan­dard­ized tests a year af­ter trans­fer­ring into pri­vate schools than their peers who stayed in pub­lic schools did, ac­cord­ing to a fed­eral study pub­lished in April. Previ ous stud­ies found that voucher re­cip­i­ents grad­u­ate from high school at far higher rates than their pub­lic-school coun­ter­parts.

Voucher ad­vo­cates em­pha­size that par­ents care far less about test scores than ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy wonks do and that they should be trusted to choose schools that work well for their chil­dren.

“Some­thing mag­i­cal hap­pens when par­ents feel they have the power to de­cide where their kids go to school and they ac­tu­ally shop around,” said Kevin Chavous, a for­mer D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber who lob­bied Congress for the voucher pro­gram. For fam­i­lies with in­comes less than $21,000 a year, the chance to ex­er­cise con­trol in ed­u­ca­tion is “a land­mark thing in ur­ban Amer­ica,” he said.

Re­ly­ing on vouch­ers

While spend­ing by pub­lic schools in the District and else­where is pub­lic in­for­ma­tion, it is not clear where the voucher money goes.

Congress sends about $15 mil­lion each year to a non­profit ad­min­is­tra­tor of the pro­gram that, in turn, gives schol­ar­ships to District chil­dren for use at pri­vate schools. The non­profit, Serv­ing Our Chil­dren, re­fused a re­quest for data on the num­ber of stu­dents who at­tend each school and the num­ber of voucher dol­lars that flow to each school.

Lawyers ad­vised against re­leas­ing such in­for­ma­tion to avoid vi­o­lat­ing a clause in the law that pro­hibits the dis­clo­sure of “per­son­ally iden­ti­fi­able in­for­ma­tion,” ac­cord­ing to Rachel Sot­sky, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Of the 47 pri­vate schools that par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram, 15 re­sponded to Wash­ing­ton Post in­quiries about the num­ber of voucher stu­dents they serve. That lim­ited in­for­ma­tion shows that al­though some of Wash­ing­ton’s elite pri­vate schools en­roll just a few stu­dents, or none at all, oth­ers — many of them small operations run out of churches or store­fronts — rely heav­ily on voucher dol­lars.

Beau­voir, an el­e­men­tary school on the grounds of Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Cathe­dral where tu­ition tops $35,000, en­rolled no voucher stu­dents in 2017, school of­fi­cials said. Sid­well Friends, fa­mous for ed­u­cat­ing the chil­dren of pres­i­dents, in­clud­ing Barack Obama’s, has en­rolled one or two voucher re­cip­i­ents each year.

But at the Acad­emy for Ideal Ed­u­ca­tion — which of­fers “stress free, holis­tic learn­ing” that helps stu­dents in­te­grate the right and left hemi­spheres of their brains, ac­cord­ing to its web­site — 27 of 30 stu­dents are on vouch­ers, ac­cord­ing to a re­cep­tion­ist at the school, housed in a low-slung brick build­ing along­side a church in North­east Wash­ing­ton. The owner, Paulette Jones-Bell Imaan, de­clined to speak to a re­porter.

Thirty-nine of 45 stu­dents — 87 per­cent — of stu­dents at Academia de la Recta Porta In­ter­na­tional Chris­tian Day School, a small school run out of a store­front along Ge­or­gia Av­enue in North­west Wash­ing­ton, are on vouch­ers, ac­cord­ing to An­nette Miles, who runs the school. Eighty-one per­cent of stu­dents at Cal­vary Chris­tian Acad­emy, in a church in Brent­wood, pay tu­ition with vouch­ers.

All eight of Jamie Young­blood’s chil­dren at­tend or at­tended Bridges Acad­emy, a K-8 school in Bright­wood where 69 per­cent of stu­dents use vouch­ers.

Bridges pre­pared her chil­dren for high school in a way Young­blood doubted her neigh­bor­hood school in South­east would have done, she said. It of­fers small classes and a well-rounded set of ex­pe­ri­ences, from an eti­quette class where her sons learned to tie a neck­tie to class trips to places as di­verse as Ber­muda, Seat­tle and Ten­nessee.

The voucher pro­gram, she said, “is one of the best things they’ve done for our kids’ ed­u­ca­tion.”

Crit­ics also say some stu­dents with spe­cial needs have a hard time us­ing vouch­ers. Pri­vateschool pro­files pub­lished by Serv­ing Our Chil­dren, the voucher ad­min­is­tra­tor, show that 1 in 5 do not serve stu­dents with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties; half don’t serve stu­dents with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties; and two-thirds don’t serve stu­dents learn­ing English as a se­cond lan­guage.

Vouch­ers pro­vide schools with fewer dol­lars per child, on av­er­age, than pub­lic school fund­ing does for its stu­dents. Abi­gail Smith, who served as deputy mayor for ed­u­ca­tion un­der Mayor Vin­cent C. Gray, said she’s concerned that schools that rely heav­ily on vouch­ers there­fore must cut cor­ners and pay low teacher salaries or refuse to serve chil­dren with the most in­ten­sive needs.

The lack of trans­parency means there is no way to know which schools rely heav­ily on vouch­ers, what those schools of­fer or how their stu­dents fare, Smith said.

“If there’s no vis­i­bil­ity into it, you just can’t know,” she said. “The lack of in­for­ma­tion re­ally con­cerns me.”

This ar­ti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the In­ves­tiga­tive Re­port­ing Work­shop at Amer­i­can Univer­sity, where McLaren is a stu­dent.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

First-graders wait their turn on pic­ture day in the gym of the District’s Bridges Acad­emy, where the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents re­ceive fed­er­ally funded vouch­ers.

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Quien­ten Ben­nett is headed to the U.S. Naval Acad­emy af­ter grad­u­at­ing from St. John’s Col­lege High School with help from the District’s fed­er­ally funded voucher pro­gram. LEFT: Yonathan Dawit stud­ies at Bridges Acad­emy, where most stu­dents re­ceive vouch­ers. RIGHT: Reme­dios Gesto teaches math at Bridges. The District does not re­quire schools re­ceiv­ing vouch­ers to dis­close stu­dent per­for­mance.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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