Vouchers under fire

Education | A provision in a House appropriations bill could spell trouble for Washington, D.C.'s fledgling school voucher program
by Emily Belz
Posted 2/24/09, 12:00 am

WASHINGTON-The House of Representatives is working on finalizing its spending legislation for the year, to the tune of $410 billion, and one local school voucher program could be on the chopping block.

Under the appropriations legislation, Washington, D.C.'s school voucher program will come to an end after the 2009-10 school year, unless both Congress and the Council of the District of Columbia reauthorize it. Democrats, the district's council, and the local teachers union are not enthusiastic supporters of the voucher program, which Republicans pushed in 2004 with the support of then-D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. House Republicans are crying foul, saying Democrats are trying to sink the program by adding these contingencies.

"They're tied to the teachers unions," said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., who is the ranking Republican on the Education Committee. "It's unconscionable."

McKeon is stunned that Democrats oppose a program that he believes has helped so many families who vote Democrat in the district.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was at the Capitol for a Senate procedural vote to give the district a voting representative in Congress, offered a measured response to the changes, saying the programs his administration has supported for the last two years he will continue to support. Fenty didn't support the voucher program when he first took office two years ago, but has since been an advocate for the program. Plus, his public schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, supports vouchers.

But at least one Democrat was unequivocal about the future of the voucher program: Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he would vote against its continuation.

"It's taking away money from the public school system," Cummings said. "They need every dime they can get."

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., wrote on Twitter this morning, "Disappointing that Ds will kill a program that's really making a difference in DC."

The district's public schools are ranked among the worst in the nation, and are the most expensive, costing about $13,000 a student. The voucher program, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, has served between 1,700 and 2,000 low-income families in the district each year, allowing children to attend a school of their choice. Thousands are on the waiting list for the $7,500 vouchers, which will cost the federal government $14 million this year.

"Eliminating this program would represent an irresponsible and shameful act on the part of the Democratic leadership in Congress," said House Republican Leader John Boehner.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly, has told reporters that Republicans are misconstruing the voucher provision. Democrats aren't trying to kill the program, he said, but simply requiring reauthorization like they would for any other government program.

Parents with children enrolled in the voucher program have expressed a high degree of satisfaction, even though the gains in terms of scores have been modest.

Even if the program became wildly successful, with the Democrats in control, Republicans don't expect vouchers to pass through in congressional legislation anytime soon.

"Politically, it's a dead issue," said McKeon. "I'm a realist."

President Obama said during his campaign that he did not support school vouchers.

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.

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