Lousy Legacy: Boehner Leaves D.C. Stuck With Voucher Program

The D.C. “scholarship” fund is primarily a taxpayer bailout for struggling religious schools. The Washington Post found in 2012 that more than half of 1,584 students who received vouchers at that time used them to attend Catholic institutions. The newspaper also found that in some cases, more than 90 percent of a school’s students paid with federal vouchers.

With U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) announcement that he will be retiring from Congress this month, various media outlets are in the process of examining his legacy. While Boehner had an impact on many aspects of U.S. policy, in at least one area he leaves behind a legacy of failure: his private school voucher program in the District of Columbia.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program – known as the D.C. voucher – has been around since 2004. Boehner wasn’t speaker then, but he did play a key role in its creation. Thanks to machinations by Boehner and his allies, the plan was rammed through the House of Representatives during a late-night session when many members were away from the chamber. It couldn't get through the Senate as a stand-alone bill, so it was added to the conference report of an omnibus appropriations measure. It was later signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The original legislation funded the program until 2009, but bad bills are often hard to kill and the scheme was reauthorized in 2011 as part of a deal to prevent a government shutdown.

In a recent report on vouchers in D.C., The Washington Post noted that Boehner attended Catholic school while growing up in Ohio. He was one of 12 children in a family described as “working class,” and Boehner’s parents “scrounged to come up with Catholic school tuition,” the newspaper said.

As a result of that experience, Boehner became a champion for funding Catholic schools with public money. He knew he couldn’t get a nationwide voucher scheme through Congress (to date, all such attempts have failed), but he was able to use Congress’s power of oversight on Washington, D.C., to force a “school choice” program on its residents.  

A former Boehner staffer told The Post that the outgoing speaker is proud of what he did.

“It’s unquestionably a defining characteristic of the Boehner speakership,” said David Schnittger. “This is a topic very close to his heart.”

But what, exactly, hath Boehner wrought?

In its current form, the D.C. “school choice” scheme gives qualifying students between $8,000 and $12,000 in taxpayer dollars annually to attend a private or charter school. So far, 6,252 students have made use of the program since its inception, The Post said. The program originally had a $12 million yearly budget, but by 2012-2013, it had grown to $20 million.

The problems with Boehner’s handiwork are many - including a lack of academic improvement by voucher students.

First, Boehner seemingly had no regard for whether or not D.C. even wanted vouchers. In November 2002, an opinion poll found that 75 percent of D.C. residents did not want them, plus Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) opposed vouchers in 2004 and remains in opposition.

“I’m opposed to what amounts to a pet project that was imposed on the District without any consultation,” Norton told The Post. “I can understand his devotion to Catholic schools, but the point here ought to be what is in the best interest of the District’s children.”  

Second, the D.C. voucher program is also rife with abuse. A 2012 report on the program by The Post revealed that some of the schools accepting voucher students include a K-12 school operating out of a storefront, a Nation of Islam school based in a converted house, and a school built on the teachings of an obscure Bulgarian psychotherapist.

The Nation of Islam school was particularly troubling. The Post said at the time of the survey, the Muhamad University of Islam was located on the second floor of a converted house. Its 55 students were crammed into “classrooms” that were likely bedrooms at one time, and the only bathroom “had a floor blackened with dirt and a sink coated in grime. The bathtub was filled with paint cans and cleaning supplies concealed by a curtain.”  

Third, the “scholarship” fund is primarily a taxpayer bailout for struggling religious schools. The Post found in 2012 that more than half of 1,584 students who received vouchers at that time used them to attend Catholic institutions. The newspaper also found that in some cases, more than 90 percent of a school’s students paid with federal vouchers.

As scary as the realities of vouchers are in D.C., something concrete can be done to put an end to this sordid scheme. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is once again up for reauthorization. Boehner will surely use his remaining days in Congress to fight for his pet project, which may haunt D.C. long after Boehner has accepted a private-sector consulting position that pays him handsomely.

The first markup on a bill that would reauthorize D.C. vouchers is scheduled for Friday. As a result, Americans United is working hard to stop Congress from continuing to force bad policy on D.C. residents. (Click here to learn what you can do).

It’s fine for Boehner to promote Catholic education on his own time, but he has no right to force taxpayers to pay for his sectarian agenda. If D.C. residents (or anyone else) want their students to attend a religious school, they need to do so without government assistance.