The DC Voucher Farce

There’s something pathological about the perennial congressional debates over the DC “school voucher” program. The most important thing to understand about this is that it’s not a school voucher program. The way the once (and possibly future) program works is this — the federal government gets some money together and gives it to poor kids in DC to pay their tuition to go to private school.

The formal name for the program was the “DC Opportunity Scholarship” program which was actually much more accurate than the “voucher” term. It worked exactly as if DC’s rich uncle showed up one day with a sack full of money and started offering to use it to pay kids’ tuition. And actually this kind of thing happens all the time. I went to private school when I grew up, and my grandparents paid for it. There are lots of things you could call that arrangement, but it’s not a “school voucher” program at all. Nothing has been cashed out, no money follows the kids anywhere, there’s no competitive pressure on DCPS, nothing.

And yet there’s a kind of bipartisan conspiracy on the Hill to pretend that this is a high-stakes ideological battle. Republicans design a program that’s not a voucher program, it’s just a “free money for a small number of poor kids in the District of Columbia” program. Naturally that program is popular with poor families in the District of Columbia for the exact same reasons as a special “DC kids get extra SNAP benefits” or “DC kids get bonus Pell Grants” program would be popular. Then the popularity of the program is cynically deployed to make the case for actual voucher programs elsewhere. Consequently, all the stakeholders who don’t like the idea of taking money out of public school systems band together to oppose the DC voucher program even though the program doesn’t take any money out of public schools.

It’d be as if the Congressional GOP appropriated $10 million to let a lot of cute puppies loose on the streets in Washington but named them “school vouchers” and then everyone freaked out when Democrats started shooting puppies. It’s cynical on all sides and really says nothing about education policy one way or the other.