Friday, October 17, 2003

I recently wrote to our senators explaing my opposition to the school voucher program in Washington D.C. and I got this response today: ***Warning this is a loooong post*** October 16, 2003 Dear Mr. Milliken: I am writing in response to your letter regarding the District of Columbia's school voucher pilot program. I recognize that this is a controversial issue, so I would like to try to respond as fully as possible. Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams has proposed a 5 year pilot program in the District of Columbia to provide scholarships of up to $7,500 to allow parents to pay for tuition, fees, and transportation to any private school in the District. While I have not supported school vouchers in my thirty years of public service, I respect and support Mayor Williams' efforts to improve educational opportunities for his city. Because of the nature of the relationship between the Federal government and D.C., the issue before us is a package of financial educational new dollars for the District. While I will continue to support our public education system in every way I can, I believe we need to rethink what works for children. If we look at what works for students, we would probably agree that different models are helpful, because what works for one child may not necessarily work for another. Clearly, the public schools in the District need improvement. District schools currently spend $10,852 per student - the third highest per student spending in the country - yet student achievement remains very low. On September 4, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Fiscal Year 2004 District of Columbia Appropriations bill, which provided $40 million in new money to D.C. schools, including $13 million to D.C. public schools, $13 million to D.C. charter schools, and $13 million to implement Mayor Williams' voucher proposal. I would not have supported this "pilot" if it took funds from D.C.'s public education system. But it does not; rather it adds net new dollars. Before I decided to support the program and vote in the Appropriations Committee in favor of the proposal to fund the school choice program, I made sure that the bill addressed a number of key issues. Specifically, the proposal contains the following components: Creates a pilot program, not a precedent. The bill sunsets the voucher program after 5 years, at which time the Mayor, the Secretary of Education, and Congress will evaluate the success of the program and determine the extent of improvement in student achievement. Requires student testing to measure academic achievement. Voucher students will receive comparable assessments to their peers in D.C. public schools to determine after 5 years if the voucher program improved academic excellence. I am working to change the word "comparable" to "same," so that we can accurately assess the performance of students in the voucher program. Provides $7,500 vouchers. The bill gives at least 2,000 low-income parents, by lottery, the option of sending their children to private and religious schools in the District. The voucher funds can be used for tuition, fees, and transportation. Priority is given to the neediest parents living at 185 percent of the poverty level ($34,000 for a family of four) whose children attend failing schools. Sets the maximum voucher amount at a fair level. The median price of private schools in the District is $8,000; the bill provides for a $7,500 voucher, making it feasible for some parents to make up the difference between the amount of the scholarship and the cost of some private school tuition. Many schools have tuition well within the $7,500 limit. Ensures that vouchers go to students of failing schools. The bill states that "In awarding grants under this Act, the Secretary shall give priority to applications from eligible entities who will most effectively (1) give priority to eligible students who, in the school year preceding the school year for which the eligible student is seeking a scholarship, attended an elementary school or secondary school identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring; and (2) target resources to students and families who lack the financial resources to take advantage of available educational options." An eligible student is defined as a student who is a District resident who "comes from a household whose income does not exceed 185 percent of the poverty line." Increases Mayoral accountability. The Mayor will have input in all aspects of the voucher program and can be held accountable for student results. The bill requires Mayor Williams and the Secretary of Education to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding to design and implement the program, including the creation or selection of an appropriate entity to run the program. The Memorandum will address the following needs: the provision of strong accountability measures and program performance evaluations, the specifics of a lottery system which will provide fair and unbiased acceptance of students into the voucher program, oversight by the D.C. Mayor of the program's operation, the criteria for the selection of participating schools, the evaluation and methodology for the selection of participating schools and for the certification of licensure, and other necessary requirements such as health and safety codes, and the development of appropriate oversight and accountability measures. I firmly support the role of parents in the education of their children, and I believe that every parent should be able to make decisions that will be in the best interest of his or her child. Public schools in Washington, D.C. are in dire straights and needy District parents should be given the chance to provide their children with better academic opportunities. Affluent families have that opportunity now, poor families do not. Why not try this? After 5 years, we can then evaluate the program and learn from it. I am willing to allow the Mayor to try this "pilot." It is not a precedent for vouchers in any other community. Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I hope that you will continue to share your opinions with me in the future. If I can be of any assistance to you, or if you would like to express additional comments, please feel free to call my office in Washington, D.C. at (202) 224-3841. Sincerely yours, Dianne Feinstein United States Senator Further information about my position on issues of concern to California and the Nation are available at my website . You can also receive electronic e-mail updates by subscribing to my e-mail list at .

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