- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

D.C. leaders oppose House Majority Leader Dick Armey's measure to introduce vouchers for poor students in the city, saying the legislation goes against the idea of home rule.

Mr. Armey, Texas Republican, recently introduced a bill creating vouchers in the District, the same day that the Supreme Court held vouchers in Cleveland to be constitutional.

The bill would give students of low-income families scholarships of $3,750 to $5,000 each to attend public, private or parochial schools of their choice. At least 8,300 tuition scholarships would be awarded in the first five years.

This week, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, announced on the floor of Congress that she would fight the bill, which she described as "punishment" for the District.

Mr. Armey says his bill helps poor students in a low-performing public school system and includes $45 million in funding between 2003 and 2007.

"We have here a school system that is close to being the nation's worst failure. This bill would give $45 million in new money so parents can take their children to schools of their choice," he said yesterday.

Mr. Armey introduced a similar bill in Congress in 1997, which passed both the House and Senate but was vetoed by President Clinton. Now, with a president who supports vouchers, Mr. Armey said he expected the bill to move forward.

"I think it does have a good chance," he said.

City officials assailed the measure.

"This is the same old anti-democracy story at a new low and we are going to fight it every step of the way," Mrs. Norton said.

She said if the bill moved forward, she would attach a counterprovision asking that the District be allowed to decide how the money was distributed to disadvantaged students.

She said students now have alternatives to public schools. The city has a higher student-charter school ratio than any other school division in the country, Mrs. Norton said.

"If you are looking for some jurisdiction to become a guinea pig for vouchers, you should find a place where choice is not available," she said.

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said the mayor was not opposed to a broader voucher initiative for the nation but was against congressional efforts to "micromanage" the city's school system.

"We will not support these kinds of social policy experiments in the District," Mr. Bullock said.

Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the council's education committee, said any effort to start a voucher program in the city had to be a "significant grass-roots movement" and not one imposed by Congress.

He said performance in the city's 68,449-student school system was improving, largely because of the competition from charters. "Eighteen percent of our students go to charter schools. Vouchers would be disruptive because they would take away resources from charter schools," he said.

But Mr. Armey said charters, which are publicly funded and privately run schools, were helpful but not enough.

"Charter schools are often specialty schools, and there are not enough opportunities available to everyone. While we celebrate charter schools, there is a heartbreaking need for other choices," he said.

No survey has been done recently to gauge District residents' opinion on the issue, but in a referendum held in 1981, 89 percent of the District's voters said no to vouchers.

The city's school board hasn't yet taken a stand on the issue, but board member Julie Mikuta said improving the schools was the goal, regardless of how it is done.

"If vouchers are on the table, what is it a process toward?" she asked. "As a community, we have to step back and look at what the goal is."

Schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance, in a prepared statement after the Supreme Court decision, expressed concern that vouchers abrogated the separation of church and state by giving public funds to religious institutions. After Mr. Armey introduced the voucher bill, Mr. Vance said he would hold a meeting with board members to discuss it.

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