The Obama administration reversed course Monday and agreed to fully implement a controversial school voucher program that provides federal tuition assistance to a limited number of D.C. youths despite historically mixed opinion of the program among city leaders and the White House's own efforts to eliminate it.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent - two high-profile supporters of vouchers- announced Monday that they had struck an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to carry out the program with no specific cap on enrollment, so both new and existing enrollees can apply to the program.
Mr. Obama had not included any funding for the politically sensitive scholarship program in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal, part of a trend by his administration since 2009 to phase out the program by funding only existing enrollees.
The agreement builds on a "dramatic explosion" of school-choice initiatives across the country, totaling 25 bills in 13 states over the past two legislative cycles, said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
"The reality is the [D.C] program is helping children do better," he said. "It's really good they have reversed course on this and don't want to get in a big fight with Congress."
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, who are charged with oversight of D.C. affairs, said in a joint statement Monday that they are "pleased that the Obama administration has apparently given up on its opposition to fully implementing this bipartisan initiative."
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has said the city will act "with fidelity" to implement the scholarship program despite his long-standing objections to it.
Mr. Boehner said the agreement is "consistent with the law already on the books," namely the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act of 2011, which Mr. Obama signed during last year's springtime budget standoff. The legislation, which Mr. Boehner and Mr. Lieberman pushed to passage, renewed the scholarship program for five years and mandated that an annual federal payment of $60 million be split in equal thirds among the program, D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools in the District.
Mr. Boehner's spokesman said congressional leaders expect the program to be fully funded at $20 million in light of the Obama administration's commitment, "and we will work to make sure that happens."
The administration's depiction of Monday's development was more limited in scope than that of Capitol Hill lawmakers, who claimed Mr. Obama had "reversed course" through the agreement. The U.S. Department of Education said that rather than an open-ended program, it wants to increase enrollment from 1,615 to about 1,700 students for the coming year to allow for a "statistically valid evaluation of the program, as directed by Congress."
"The president and I are committed to ensuring that the education of the children currently in [the program] is not disrupted," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said through a spokesman. "Beyond that commitment, however, we remain convinced that our time and resources are best spent on reforming the public school system to benefit all students, and we look forward to working with Congress in a bipartisan manner to advance that goal."
The National Education Association shares that position because vouchers "divert essential resources from public schools to private and religious schools," according to its website.
Congress established the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2004, a first-of-its-kind program for the city's parents who want to send their disadvantaged children to Catholic schools or other private options instead of struggling public schools.
The new agreement would allow for new enrollees with new scholarships, said Ed Davies, vice president of external affairs for the D.C. Children & Youth Investment Corp., which administers the program.
The program has been a political flash point since then and even surfaced in this year's presidential race. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, denounced Mr. Obama's stance on the campaign trail last month, declaring it "inexcusable" for the president to try to shut down the program.
Mr. Gray, a Democrat, said true school choice lies with a robust system of traditional public schools and charter schools. When federal lawmakers struck a deal on D.C. vouchers in 2011, Mr. Gray accused Congress of using city residents as "bargaining chips in political negotiations and guinea pigs for the favorite social experiments of important congressional leaders."
"The Congress has said that the city will have a voucher program, and we'll move forward to continue to implement it," Mr. Gray told The Washington Times on Wednesday. "But I really believe that the future lies in having a strong public education system."
For nearly a decade, the program has straddled the delicate fault line between federal oversight of the nation's capital and the District's self-governance, although mixed views among city politicians make the vouchers a more complex issue than typical disputes over D.C. home rule. Former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, a Democrat and early champion for the program, has continued to voice support for the scholarship program and even tested the city's unflagging loyalty to Mr. Obama with a series of ads that criticized the Democratic president's stance on the scholarships.
"The program's been an incredible success," Mr. Chavous said in a phone interview. "The only thing that's gotten in the way is politics."
Mr. Gray said school choice is alive and well in the District, with enrollment in public charter schools surpassing 40 percent of the city's public student body - 41 percent in public charters and 59 percent in D.C. Public Schools - for the first time during the past year.
"I would love to see them invest [available federal funding] in our charters and our traditional D.C. Public Schools," Mr. Gray said of Congress.
Meanwhile, local officials are knee-deep in applications for the federally backed voucher program. The trust that administers the scholarships recently passed its first major deadline for the 2012-13 school year, and Mr. Davies said the new agreement could allow the trust to offer more awards this year among the applications it has received.
More than 1,600 students enrolled in 53 participating schools through the voucher program in the 2011-12 school year. Among them, 87 percent were black and 11 percent were Hispanic. Students from east of the Anacostia River accounted for more than 43 percent of participating students, and the average household incomefor enrollees citywide was $23,401 in 2010.
High school students can receive up to $12,000 in assistance per year; middle school and elementary school students are eligible for up to $8,000. The students attend a variety of institutions, including prep schools, for-profit private schools and an array of Catholic schools, according to the trust.
During the past school year, 816 recipients of the scholarships attended 18 Catholic schools in the District, Archdiocese of Washington spokeswoman Brie Hall said. The archdiocese praised Monday's announcement as "significant for the children of the District of Columbia" because it allows low-income families to "choose the school that best fits their child's needs."
"Access to quality education should not be denied because of one's income or residence," Ms. Hall said.
The archdiocese, which said its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill were limited to letters of support from its superintendent of schools Deacon Bert L'Homme, praised Mr. Boehner's work to resuscitate the program last year as "a promising step forward for education in the District of Columbia."
But the mayor rallied with education and civil rights leaders in April 2011 to denounce the program as another form of federal interference into local affairs.
His views stood in contrast to those of then-council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, who spoke in support of the program and positioned himself as an education reformer during his tenure on the council. He resigned in disgrace this month and pleaded guilty to bank fraud and a campaign-finance violation that stemmed from his 2008 re-election as an at-large member of the council.
A spokeswoman for the newly appointed chairman, Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said the council leader is "with Mayor Gray on this one."
Meanwhile, proponents like Mr. Chavous say support for the program should be a no-brainer.
"D.C. residents like the program because they see the benefits," he said.
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