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House votes to restart D.C. school vouchers

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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.

"The federal government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students," the statement said.

But the administration stopped short of a veto threat, leaving the door open for a deal with Republicans.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting congressional representative and a staunch opponent of the program, has urged the president not to use school vouchers as a bargaining chip in ongoing negotiations with Republicans.

The Democrat also said the program violates the District's right to self-government.

"The pattern of this Congress could not be clearer. … They have done nothing but try to take from the District of Columbia with bill after bill; now they want to help us against our will," she said.

"If you want to help us, give us the courtesy, have the good grace to ask us how we want to be helped."

Rep. Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, chided D.C. leaders who oppose the measure, saying they risk shortchanging their constituents.

"I think they have to begin to look at themselves more deeply, at those that they actually represent - those who voted for them but did not vote to have this money rejected," said Mr. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which has about 500 voucher students in its schools, have pushed lawmakers to reinstate the program.

"This is a great day for the children of the District of Columbia," said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, in a statement released after the vote. "Access to quality education should not be denied because of one's income or residence."

But Washington Mayor Vincent C. Gray said renewing the program was unnecessary because the city's public school system is improving.

"We hope the Senate will counter these regressive and draconian measures and allow the city to govern itself," he said.

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