Last Friday the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report highlighting flaws and failures in the oversight of Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship program. But contrary to what you may have read in some newspapers and blogs (especially if you just skimmed headlines like this and this), the GAO’s findings were not an attack on vouchers or school choice.
Perhaps the most egregious offender published a headline which read “Report slams D.C’s federally funded school voucher program,” with the author also incorrectly stating “public money shouldn’t be used for tuition at private schools where there is no public oversight.”
The D.C. voucher program has, on paper, considerable public oversight (three layers, in fact). The problem is, the government agencies responsible for that oversight fell woefully short.
First, a little background: The U.S. Department of Education is required to appoint a non-profit organization to administer the program. The department is responsible for helping the non-profit develop policies and procedures to accomplish that task. The District of Columbia is responsible for inspecting private schools to ensure compliance with federal law.
In 2010, the Obama administration’s education department selected the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, a government-affiliated non-profit, to administer the program. The non-profit is not without its own prior controversies, including having $350,000 of its money embezzled by an elected D.C. politician, but that is another story.
In 2011, Congress passed the SOAR Act, keeping the voucher program alive and funded for another five years. According to the GAO, new regulations were added that required the non-profit administrator to provide parents a directory of participating schools; ensure participating private schools were compliant with the law; ensure private school teachers had a bachelor’s degree or higher; and advertise the program to prospective students in public schools designated as “needs improvement.” The non-profit’s original duties included verifying household income for students to ensure eligibility and administering a lottery to award scholarships.
But as the GAO report point out, the non-profit administrator fumbled many of those tasks:
- It provided parents a directory of participating/eligible private schools that included out-of-date or incorrect information on tuition and fees, accreditation and religious affiliation.
- It published the 2012-13 directory of participating private schools nine months after the school year began.
- It awarded many scholarships to students after the student’s preferred private school application deadline ended and conducted the lottery in July, just prior to the start of the new school year. (It is worth noting, though, that the GAO also found many private schools enrolled scholarship students anyway.)
- It failed to independently verify self-reported data from participating schools (such as whether the schools complied with building occupancy codes and teacher credentialing requirements).
- Its risk assessments of school financials were incomplete.
- Its policies and procedures for dealing with non-compliant schools were incomplete.
- There were also weaknesses and lack of internal checks in the trust’s database (such as data entry errors and a lack of historical data).
The GAO also dinged the education department – for failing to help the non-profit shore up its weaknesses and create appropriate policies and procedures; and the district – for failing to make the appropriate inspections for health and safety, fire and occupancy.
Some of the problems will be easy to fix. Some will be difficult and costly. And some seem more manageable if oversight duties are shifted. (The ed department, for instance, seems better suited for dealing with non-compliant schools; that’s certainly the case here in Florida.) At the end of the day, though, the problems are real. It’s clear that for the sake of kids and taxpayers, oversight must be improved.
But given the misleading headlines, it’s important to make this clear, too: The GAO report isn’t a slam on vouchers. It’s a slam on bureaucracy.