The House passed a measure Wednesday to revive a school-voucher program for the District of Columbia despite opposition from the mayor, the District’s congressional delegate, teachers and the White House.
The move also sets up a key test for the administration, as House Republican leaders have hinted that they may go along with President Obama’s planned overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act — an education reform law signed by President George W. Bush — if the White House accepts the voucher bill.
“Quality education should not be a luxury only to those who can afford it,” said House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, Minnesota Republican.
Supporters say the federally funded program gives underprivileged children an opportunity to avoid the District’s struggling public schools and receive a quality education. Opponents say it’s wrong to use taxpayer money to subsidize private schools and that the money would be better spent to improve the city’s public education system.
The GOP-crafted bill passed by a vote of 225-195 with the support of a lone Democrat — Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois. Nine Republicans opposed the measure.
The bill now goes to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where its fate is uncertain because many Democrats are expected to oppose it.
The District’s voucher program was created in 2004 to give selected low-income students $7,500 in taxpayer funds to attend private schools. Congress — under Democratic control — began to phase out the program in 2009.
Now, House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican who attended Catholic schools, has made reviving the program a priority.
The bill would increase the program’s annual subsidy to $8,000 for children in kindergarten through eighth grade, and up to $12,000 for high school students.
The bill calls for $20 million to be spent on vouchers per year from 2012 to 2016. Another $40 million would be allocated annually for D.C. public and charter schools - a move designed in part to help stem accusations that the program funnels money away from needy public schools.
Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, said D.C. students deserve the option to participate in the program and that many parents have called for its reinstatement.
“If we act favorably on this bill, we empower those parents,” he said. “If we refuse to act favorable on this bill, then we limit those parents and the choices that they seem to want.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, countered that the program was allowed to expire because it didn’t work.
“Why the self-proclaimed party of fiscal conservatism would support authorizing millions … for a downright useless program with no [spending] offset is beyond me,” he said.
The White House on Tuesday issued a statement opposing the bill, saying the program hasn’t proved to be an effective way to improve student achievement.