Thursday, October 11, 2007

Does Washington show us Utah's future?

A report in today's Washington Post says that the small voucher program funded by the federal government in Washington, D.C., is putting schoolchildren at risk there. I'm not unfairly describing the article; the headline reads, "Voucher Program Puts D.C. Kids at Risk, Study Says." And the study was conducted not by a "think tank" but by the federal government itself, the U.S. General Accounting Office.

It is apparently important to the federal government, which funded the small program in the nation's capital, that private school teachers in Washington, D.C., at least have bachelor's degrees and that the schools themselves be accredited by a respectable accrediting agency. Neither of those things is true of the Utah voucher plan, as I've already mentioned here ( and here (

It's important enough to the U.S. General Accounting Office that the office has issued a draft report saying that some voucher students are being sent to "unsuitable learning environments." (I wonder if the GAO would call any of Utah's private schools an "unsuitable learning environment" if the referendum passes in November?) On top of it, the GAO report says the Washington, D.C. program -- which, like House Bill 148, uses the word "scholarship" instead of "voucher" -- "lacks financial controls." I suppose that's Washington jargon that means the private schools aren't being as financially accountable as traditional public schools in managing their public resources.

The article by reporter Theola Labbe is found here ( Ms. Labbe writes,

A voucher program designed to send low-income children in the District to better-performing private schools has allowed some students to take classes in unsuitable learning environments and from teachers without bachelor's degrees, according to a government report. The shortcomings are detailed in a draft prepared by the Government Accountability Office about the $12.9 million D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. The GAO said the program lacks financial controls and has failed to check whether the participating schools were accredited.

Ms. Labbe says the four-year-old program includes 1,900 students and 58 participating private schools. Since the Sutherland Institute has identified only 88 private schools in Utah that are "voucher-eligible," Referendum 1's voucher plan is potentially bigger than the Washington, D.C. program.

I noticed that the program in Washington now four years old. But as I mentioned here (, House Bill 148 holds off until after the voucher plan is in place in Utah for five years before allowing any review to be done:

"Section 11" promises that the legislative auditor general will review and report on the voucher plan "after the conclusion of the 2013-14 school year." This means that even the least effective private schools -- without any of the same public accountability or oversight that lawmakers enjoy to govern public education -- will continue to receive publicly-funded vouchers for five years, so long as they sign the affadavit pledging to comply with the law's thin "requirements," until and unless the legislative auditor general disqualifies the plan or that specific private school at the end of that five-year period.

Ms. Labbe's report suggests that the private schools themselves and the entity "overseeing" the program didn't tell the whole truth about what they were schools were doing and the "oversight" agency was seeing. The private schools accepted public funds without getting the necessary permits to operate, she says: the District, the report says, instead of giving poor children access to better learning environments, program officials put children at risk by failing to certify whether all of the participating schools had the required operating permits.

In a random sample of 18 schools reviewed by the GAO, two lacked occupancy permits, and four lacked permits needed for buildings used for educational purposes. At least seven of the 18 schools were certified as child development centers but not as private schools. In one case, a school was operating in a space designed for a retail store, the report says.

And it looks like the private schools were only accountable to themselves, not to any public agency, to show they were accredited and "in compliance" with expectations.

The schools were largely allowed to self-report that they were in compliance with city regulations, the report says, increasing the possibility that students were being ill-served without proper oversight. "Self-certification without review to verify that the certifications are factual increases the risk that federal funds intended to allow children from low-income families to attend private schools will result in some students attending schools that are not in compliance with the District law," the report says.

We might say these schools weren't being fully accountable, but we also have to say that someone, somewhere, wasn't telling the whole truth, according to Ms. Labbe's report.

We might start with the name of the program, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, and the entity that oversees it, the Washington Scholarship Fund. As I mentioned here (, vouchers aren't scholarships, because scholarships are awards given to students who have reached a level of academic achievement and want to continue their education. Vouchers are public-funded checks to private schools. So when we begin an enterprise with a lie, we invite more lies to follow. And it looks like they did, in the case of the Washington voucher program.

The Washington Scholarship Fund, which operates the program under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education, told GAO investigators that it conducted site visits at 42 schools, but the GAO could confirm a visit to only one school.

Some schools told fund officials that they had certain amenities, such as a gymnasium or an auditorium; the report says they did not. Parents might have been misled when they reviewed the list of participating schools and their programs, the report says.

Now, when faced with the objective data, the administrators of the voucher program say they didn't have the power to enforce compliance.

Gregory M. Cork, president and chief executive of the fund, said it has no capacity to enforce whether private schools comply with D.C. laws.

"We're not a government oversight agency," Cork said. "We report the characteristics of schools as they report them to us. Occasionally, a school might fill in the wrong blank. What we do take seriously is to match our families with the schools they choose and the learning environments that are best for their children."

I would ask whether House Bill 148 gives "enforcement authority" to any entity to govern the Utah plan, but I know there are so few measures in it that require compliance or accountability that it would be a foolish question.

Interestingly, it looks like some people at the U.S. Department of Education who support voucher systems intend to "revise" this GAO report before it's released officially. I don't know for sure, but I suspect "revise" means "take out the worst of the negative news."

Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the report could be revised before it becomes final. She also said it "presents an incomplete picture" of the program.

If Ms. Labbe's reporting is accurate, then a lot about the Washington voucher program is incomplete, not just the picture of its accountability. The private schools' compliance with the law seems incomplete, their permits seem incomplete, the educational credentials of their teachers seem incomplete, and their "financial controls" seems incomplete. The only thing that seems complete is the $12.9 million that the federal government has already spent on vouchers there.

Why does $12 million sound familiar to me?

At least the city administrators of Washington, D.C. have recognized a problem and are mobilizing to understand, explain and make changes to correct it.

D.C. State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist said in a statement that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has designated her office to assume oversight of the program. Gist said she will assign staffers to the task. "We will aggressively move to ensure that our students are adequately served," Gist said in a statement. Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, said yesterday that the administration is preparing a response to the draft report.

If Referendum 1 is adopted, should someone begin to identify the administrators who will recognize problems, understand and explain them, and make changes to correct them?