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D.C. mayor cautioned on scrapping vouchers

Two senators say other federal funding jeopardized

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins of Maine warned D.C. leaders Wednesday that other federal funding could be jeopardized if legislation to restore and expand a school-voucher program is voted down.

And that wasn't the only message on education reform in the city handed to new Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

A Democratic polling firm that handled research for Mr. Gray's mayoral run reported Wednesday that 77 percent of D.C. residents want "all options" on the table, including vouchers, when it comes to educating disadvantaged youths.

Both messages came as Congress held its first public hearing on the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR), which would continue the federal government's three-sector school funding approach for the District — traditional and charter public schools, and a restoration and expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The bipartisan SOAR legislation would provide $146 million for D.C. public schools, $104.5 million for charters and $96.7 million for the voucher program, said Mr. Lieberman at a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

He also offered a few words of caution.

"I think other funding will be in serious jeopardy" if the three-sector plan isn't adhered to, said Mr. Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and is chairman of the committee that oversees D.C. affairs.

Miss Collins, a Republican, agreed, saying she thinks the Obama administration's decision to phase out vouchers was "a political" one.

Mr. Gray used his first opportunity to testify as mayor to emphasize his support for charter schools and again bat down the voucher program, which he called "an experiment."

He said D.C. parents "do have choice. In addition to our traditional public education within the D.C. Public School System, we have what may be the most robust charter school movement in the nation."

But D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, who testified alongside the mayor, did the opposite.

"I support your bill," Mr. Brown told Miss Collins and Mr. Lieberman.

In his testimony, Mr. Brown acknowledged being "initially uncomfortable with the idea of vouchers in the District," seeing them as an excuse to drain D.C. public schools of students and funding.

But "because this bill authorizes funds for all three sectors — DCPS, public charter schools, and scholarships to families for nonpublic schools — it can be part of our efforts to improve educational choices for all families," he said.

He also urged lawmakers to consider analyses of funding allocations for middle- and high-school students, and to appropriate money on a five-year basis "so families can plan accordingly."

SOAR legislation also has been introduced in the House, with Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, as the chief sponsor.

The Obama administration and the Democrat-led Congress began phasing out the voucher program, which provides up to $7,500 per student, in 2009, allowing no new students to enroll. Pupils currently in the program can continue to receive the scholarships through 12th grade.

Then, as now, voucher opponents cited polls, voter initiatives and studies to support their positions.

But Wednesday, voucher proponents released a poll by Lester & Associates that showed D.C. residents' views are more in sync with new congressional efforts than those of the mayor. According to the poll:

• Seventy-five of residents say the program's results "provide a convincing reason to reauthorize the program."

• Seventy-seven percent of residents said "all options should be on the table" on the education of the city's most disadvantaged children, "even if the scholarship program will not be able to benefit every child."

• Eighty-three percent said the program should be reopened to allow new pupils to enroll.

• Sixty-one percent of D.C. resident support school vouchers in general, and 64 percent approve of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The Lester & Associates poll was taken Feb. 9-12; it surveyed 501 D.C. residents.

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