Durbin Holds Oversight Hearing on DC Education Programs

Hearing Reviews Use of Federal Funds for District Schools

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) held a hearing today examining the use and impact of Federal appropriations for educational programs in the District of Columbia. The hearing, held before Durbin’s Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Appropriations Subcommittee, was the first time in over five years that the Senate has held a comprehensive review of the District’s education entities. In that time, Congress has invested nearly $350 million in the education of the District’s children through special Federal payments without an honest appraisal of its effectiveness.


“Federal support of education programs in the District of Columbia has gone on for far too long without asking the tough questions. Are these resources making a difference? What progress has been made? What results have been demonstrated? And what’s on the horizon?” Durbin said. “Our objective today is simple: to review and take stock of whether there is reliable accountability for the use of Federal funds in improving the quality of education for D.C. students.”


For decades, the D.C. school system has faced low student academic performance, dilapidated school facilities and dysfunctional management. As a result, public school students in the District perform well below the national average. Only 12% of District 8th graders are proficient in reading and 8% are proficient in math. A dismal 9% of District high school students go on to graduate from college.


Since 2004, Federal appropriations for the District school improvements have been provided in three streams: public schools, public charter schools, and the DC voucher program. As of this last year, almost $275 million has been directly appropriated through these streams. These appropriated funds are separate from, and in addition to, funds provided to the District by the U.S. Department of Education. These latter funds are made available to the District in the same way as they are made available for individual states.


Mayoral control of the District’s public school system since 2007 has yielded some progress in streamlining bureaucracy, recruiting new principals and in raising test scores. D.C. public schools still have long way to go. However, under the leadership of Chancellor Michelle Rhee, D.C. public schools are capable of significant achievement gains.

In addition to public schools, more than 28,000 District students are enrolled in charter schools. These schools provide parents and students another option outside their neighborhood schools. While many of these schools are exemplary, performing well above the average D.C. public schools, some continue to perform below that average. In the hearing, Durbin said that Federal funds should only support the expansion of high-quality charter schools while under performing schools should be improved or closed.


In 2004 Congress established a 5-year pilot program to examine the effectiveness of a voucher program in the District. The purpose of the program was to give parents additional education options for enrolling their children in higher-performing schools in the District of Columbia.


A recent Department of Education study however has shown less then encouraging results. Since the program’s creation, there have been no gains for students in math, no statistically significant gains for boys in the program, and only modest gains for students in reading.


Durbin continues to question whether investing $14 million a year for a program providing minimal academic progress is the best use of Federal funds. He has asked that if the program is to continue, a higher level of accountability is necessary. Students in the voucher program should take the same tests as charter and public school students so that there is a basis for comparing student progress.


Witnesses at today’s hearing included: Michelle Rhee, Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools; Josephine Baker, Executive Director, District of Columbia Public Charter School Board; Gregory M. Cork, CEO & Executive Director, Washington Scholarship Fund


A second panel, testifying at a later date will include: Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, PhD, Superintendent of Schools, Archdiocese of Washington; Mary Levy, Former Director, Public Education Reform Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; Robert Cane, Executive Director, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools; and Anthony Williams, Chairman and President, DC Children First.