New House Speaker John A. Boehner formally endorsed a bill Wednesday to revive and expand the school voucher program for the District of Columbia, calling it "a model for similar programs throughout our country."
The Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, co-sponsored by Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, is a direct challenge to efforts by Democrats to starve the voucher plan of funding.
The measure would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and provide funding for city public schools, both traditional and charter. The bill also would increase the dollar amount of the scholarships, mandate a rigorous evaluation of the program and incorporate several changes requested by Democrats.
Separately, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate education committee outlined a bipartisan plan to revamp the federal No Child Left Behind Act — including a likely name change and getting a reauthorization bill to President Obama by late summer — and said they hoped the efforts would not get derailed by a partisan battle over vouchers.
"That's a particularly narrow program," said Democrat Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "It would be a mistake to get tangled up in issues only for the District of Columbia."
Mr. Harkin, Iowa Democrat, suggested changing the name of No Child legislation — first passed under President George W. Bush — to "Every Child Counts."
Questions about a possible name change arose after the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night in which he announced his intentions to "replace," not fix the legislation.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a teleconference with reporters and the lawmakers, said the administration is not "dialing back" on the president's statement and that the White House and Congress are moving "in the same direction" on changes that will "not cost a nickel."
He also said the president doesn't want to replace No Child legislation with his signature "Race to the Top" program, only incorporate its best aspects including ideas being generated on the local level.
Mr. Duncan and the lawmakers acknowledged big changes are needed and said the revised legislation will make teachers, parents and others at the state level more involved in the decision making. Bill backers said they intend to streamline 38 programs into 11 and focus on the lowest-performing schools and school systems.
Despite bipartisan backing in the Senate, the education authorization issue faces a far less-certain future in the House.
The GOP takeover of the House and gain in the Senate in November's midterm elections could also have a major impact on the fight over D.C.'s voucher program.
Newly resurgent Republicans are major backers of the school voucher idea, but D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and other voucher critics vowed again to fight the effort to expand it in the city.
"Boehner is ignoring both a compromise reached on this issue, and the home-rule public charter school alternative strongly preferred by District residents," said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat and the District's nonvoting congressional delegate.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State also voiced opposition, saying many voucher students attend Roman Catholic schools, other religious schools are expected to participate, and that government has no business subsidizing religion.
"All Americans are free to donate to the churches and church schools of their choice," said the Rev. Barry Lynn. "But no American should be forced to support a church or church school by the government."
In 2009, the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress began defunding the program and would not allow new students to participate.
Under the current plan, students can receive a voucher up to $7,500. The proposed legislation would offer students attending elementary school a scholarship of up to $8,000 a year and students attending high school a scholarship up to $12,000 a year.
The measure was introduced in the House by Mr. Boehner of Ohio and in the Senate by Connecticut's Mr. Lieberman. The eight Senate and House co-sponsors include at least one Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
"If we're serious about bipartisan education reform, then this bipartisan education bill should be the starting point," Mr. Boehner said. He credited Mr. Obama for challenging teacher unions on issues such as performance pay and expressed hope he would challenge them on this.
Mrs. Norton said the waiting lists for the city's charters proves parental preference and that Mr. Boehner is ignoring the bipartisan compromise, which curbed future funding but allowed the roughly 1,700 voucher students to remain in their private schools until graduation.
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