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DC School Vouchers Lack Sufficient Oversight

Anti-voucher demonstrator Robert Brannum (left) tries to out-shout the person at the microphone and is met head-on by shouts of those in support of vouchers. (Photo Credit: Gerald Martineau)

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 recently released.

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.

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