CITIZEN JOURNALISM: School vouchers at risk

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President Obama and other Democrats are battling among themselves over school vouchers, with low-income D.C. schoolchild

ren caught in the middle.

On one side stand Democrats who fully support the Opportunity Scholarship Program, including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty; two former mayors, Anthony A. Williams and Marion Barry; and former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous. Another advocate is Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, a former Democrat who caucuses with Democrats.

On the other side of the line stand more Democrats - President Obama, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Jose E. Serrano of New York.

“The president doesn’t believe that vouchers are a long-term answer to our educational problems and the challenges that face our public school system, where the vast majority of students are educated in this country,” White Housespokesman Robert Gibbs said in March.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has made similar remarks, once saying that vouchers won’t solve all the problems faced by public schools but that parents with children in the bleakest schools should have options.

Ms. Rhee’s position is about where the Democrats’ fissure begins.

Voucher supporters speak often of students and their families while acknowledging troubled school systems. Mr. Chavous and Mr. Williams said earlier this year in an Op-Ed column in The Washington Post that youths must be educated “by any means necessary.” At a rally at the start of this year, the two former Democratic rivals joined Mr. Barry in a rally for vouchers outside the U.S. Department of Education.

“Too many parents are stuck … and have no choice,” Mr. Barry said. “I had a choice, because we had the money to send [my son] to a private school. Too many parents don’t have those options, and I believe very strongly we are to support this program.”

Part of the Democrats’ voucher debate among themselves stems from the fact that unions are long-standing political partners of the party. The two largest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, and the major labor coalition, AFL-CIO, support school reform and oppose using public dollars for vouchers.

“Vouchers are not real education reform. … Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA,” the union told congressional Democrats in March.

Governments dole out vouchers for vaccinations, housing and other services. In the debate about climate change, there is talk about the federal government handing out vouchers to companies to put a cap on pollution. Even casinos give away vouchers for meals and gambling, and there remains considerable talk in Washington about what role vouchers could play in health care reform. Finally, if you’re in the military, you can receive free tickets to the BB&T; Classic at the Verizon Center on Sunday by obtaining a voucher.

Funding for the D.C. voucher program, which aids about 1,700 poor students with up to $7,500 a year, is in jeopardy. Congressional Democrats are leading attempts to end the program, which will phase out next year if fresh funds are not appropriated.

Mr. Serrano, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on financial services, held a hearing this spring on the city’s $12 million request for the voucher program and has signaled that he might cast his vote according to the wishes of D.C. leaders. Mr. Lieberman has signaled continued support for the program.

There have been other signals from the Senate, too.

Mr. Durbin, Senate majority whip, said his conditional support hangs on oversight and accountability of the voucher program. “We’ve got to demand the same standards” as lawmakers do for public and charter schools, he said.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has reinforced the Democrats’ opposition.

In an interview Wednesday with CNSnews.com, he said vouchers are “not the solution.”

“I appreciate the desire of every family to have the best possible education for their child,” Mr. Duncan said. “I also understand that our role is to support children, parents and educators. That is why this administration is devoting more resources and supports more ambitious reform of our public school systems than any administration in history.”

Mr. Duncan also said: “We need to be more ambitious. We need to fix all of our schools.

About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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