- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

EXCLUSIVE:

Prominent lawmakers said throughout the debate on cutting D.C. school voucher funding that they would consider reauthorizing the program, but an internal document shows House Democrats have no intention of doing so.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over the D.C. voucher program, appears to have made up its mind, according to an internal document obtained by The Washington Times.

“Currently, the Committee is unaware of any pending legislation to reauthorize the D.C. school voucher initiative. Therefore, the Committee does not anticipate reauthorizing the program,” the Democratic committee staff said in a 2010 budget document circulated Friday.

A provision in the recently approved $410 billion omnibus spending bill ends the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program after the 2009-2010 school year unless both Congress and the D.C. Council vote to renew it.

The D.C. program, fiercely supported by Republicans, was established in 2004 and gives about 1,700 low-income students up to $7,500 a year to attend private schools. It was the subject of heated debate this week in the Senate, where Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, offered an amendment to save it, which failed.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the program in the Senate, voted in favor of Mr. Ensign’s amendment and has said he intends to hold hearings this spring to evaluate the voucher program.

Democrats who voted against Mr. Ensign’s amendment shrugged off accusations that passing the bill would kill the program, saying they would hold hearings or re-evaluate it before making a decision.

“Senator Lieberman’s committee is going to take a close look to see if this program has worked,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin said. “I do not understand the reluctance on the other side to have an honest evaluation of the program that has cost us over $70 million in taxpayer funds.”

Likewise, Sen. Diane Feinstein of California has said she would be open to supporting the program if hearings show that it is working.

But a spokeswoman for Rep. Edolphus Towns, New York Democrat and chairman of the committee, confirmed that the panel does not intend to green-light the program as of now.

“Since Chairman Towns has not seen any legislation regarding the voucher program, he is not anticipating taking up reauthorization,” spokeswoman Jenny Thalheimer said.

A spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican and the committee’s ranking member, accused Democrats of being disingenuous.

“Talk of hearings, assertions that no final decision had been made were deceptive doubletalk. Democrats on the House committee that would have to reauthorize the program had already decided poor D.C. children shouldn’t be in private schools,” spokesman Frederick Hill said.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the decision to terminate a program that parents, students, educators, and local leaders consider successful was terminated without hearings or process because powerful union interests wanted it that way,” he said.

Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told The Washington Post last month that Democrats had not decided to end the program, but rather, planned to “take a look at it.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Miller would not comment on his position.

Republicans on the House Education committee are working with the minority staff on the Government Reform committee to introduce legislation to reauthorize the voucher program.

“So that certainly cannot be used as an excuse to take away these scholarships. Legislation is coming,” said Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Rep. Buck McKeon, California Republican and ranking member of the House Education committee.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama does not support vouchers in the long run, but said he wants to find a way to let students already enrolled in the D.C. program finish.

“It wouldn’t make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system. And I think we’ll work with Congress to ensure that a disruption like that doesn’t take place,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.

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