- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

The House, on two razor-thin votes, yesterday approved a historic private-school voucher program for D.C. parents who want to remove their children from public schools.

On a 205-203 vote, with four Democrats joining 201 Republicans, the House voted to start a five-year pilot program to offer school-choice scholarships of up to $7,500 to an estimated 2,000 parents whose children currently attend failing D.C. public schools.

The program passed as an amendment to the appropriations bill for the District.

“This amendment offers help and hope to disadvantaged families in the District of Columbia, by giving them the same education choices that middle-class families already enjoy,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

House Democrats still hope the voucher vote will be overturned when the appropriations bill comes up for a final vote Tuesday. The program also awaits Senate action, which, given the closeness of the House votes, is not anticipated to be easy, both supporters and opponents of school vouchers said yesterday.

Fourteen Republicans opposed the voucher initiative championed by President Bush and proposed by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican. The close vote was marked by heavy Republican arm-twisting.

Opponents repeatedly said there was “no evidence” that vouchers help poor families or foster public school improvement. They equated vouchers to abandoning the public schools and stripping them of much-needed funding.

“I see a trick; I see subterfuge. I see us undermining the right for our children to get a good common school education,” said Rep. Danny K. Davis, Illinois Democrat.

“It’s D.C. today. It’s Chicago tomorrow, St. Louis, New Orleans, Los Angeles next week, then it’s all of America. The message … goes far beyond Washington, D.C.”

In a separate vote, the House blocked D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s effort to strip the $10 million from the District’s appropriation bill for fiscal 2004, which would have left the voucher program unfunded. The vote ended in a 203-203 tie, after Republican leaders convinced two Republican congressmen to switch their votes.

“There was a bit of an uproar on the House floor” as the first vote was closed, an aide to one opposing Republican lawmaker said. Rep. Robert R. Simmons, Connecticut Republican and voucher opponent, was blocked from voting as he came running onto the House floor while the vote was still open.

Reps. Philip S. English of Pennsylvania and Ernest L. Fletcher of Kentucky, both Republican opponents on the first vote, switched their votes from “yes” to “no” on Mrs. Norton’s amendment.

House supporters repeatedly spoke of the large academic achievement gap of black students in D.C. schools, despite the more than $10,000 yearly per-pupil cost, which is nearly the highest in the country.

Terming the city’s school system “a failed dysfunctional bureaucracy,” Mr. Davis of Virginia said it has “the highest drop-out rate in the nation and the lowest academic scores.”

Mrs. Norton didn’t disagree.

“We have been demonizing the public schools in the District of Columbia. Be my guest,” she said. But she and other opponents said vouchers would siphon money from public education and begin a national trend throughout the country.

“We don’t believe that vote will pass silently in the night,” she told her colleagues, hinting at the fact that the National Education Association, the country’s largest public school union, has promised to use the issue in the 2004 campaigns.

Despite Mrs. Norton’s opposition, the voucher plan is supported by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, chairman of the council’s education committee.

As the debate over vouchers intensifies and the matter reaches the Senate floor, it will become clearer that parents of D.C. schoolchildren want choice in where they send their children to classes, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, based in the District.

“The reality is that District of Columbia parents are very engaged, very supportive of this. They’re just too busy getting their kids ready for school to show it,” she said. “I think you will begin to see more and more advocacy on this issue.”

Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, said that despite the House vote yesterday he sees momentum gaining on the side of those opposed to vouchers. To build on that, he said, residents and community leaders will have to continue talking to senators about their objections.

Education Secretary Rod Paige applauded the House action

“I’ve always believed that expanding educational options for parents must be an integral part of our efforts to strengthen our schools and to leave no child behind,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Paige told reporters Thursday at a breakfast meeting that he believed private-school vouchers to be an instrument of “social justice” for low-income and disadvantaged families.

“A child should not have his or her educational circumstances limited by their parent’s income, the color of their skin, or the dialect of their speech,” he said yesterday.

Surveys of 60 private schools in the District found that 38 charge tuition of $7,500 or less, said Nina Rees, a deputy undersecretary at the Education Department.

Just four Democrats broke with their party to support the voucher program and oppose Mrs. Norton’s move to strip its funding. They were Reps. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, Ralph M. Hall of Texas, William O. Lipinski of Illinois and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.

Eleven Republicans who broke with their party to join Democrats in opposition were Reps. Judy Biggert and Timothy V. Johnson of Illinois, Sherwood Boehlert and John M. McHugh of New York, Sam Graves of Missouri, Frank A. LoBiondo and H. James Saxton of New Jersey, Bob Ney of Ohio, Ron Paul of Texas, Todd R. Platts of Pennsylvania, Jim Ramstad of Minnesota and Mike Simpson of Idaho.

Patrick Badgley and wire services contributed to this report.

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