- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Last Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved the $5.4 billion fiscal 2004 budget for the District of Columbia. That legislation earmarked a modest $10 million in new federal dollars for a D.C. school voucher plan. The following day, the Senate Appropriations Committee took up the legislation, and the usual partisan suspects emerged, with Democrats threatening to filibuster. Senate Democrats and, unfortunately, a Republican, apparently had four chief concerns. To be sure, they need not worry.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the lone Republican to side with Democrats, and others complained that publicly funded vouchers would raise church-state concerns and allow private schools to evade accountability standards set forth in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. They also raised their old standby — that public funds should only be spent on public schools — and their contention the District should not be forced to implement vouchers.

First of all, the Supreme Court already has addressed church-state and constitutional issues (as the op-ed on the adjacent page iterates). Second, any accountability issues not covered in existing federal or D.C. legislation could easily be overseen by the District’s own State Education Office. As for the third complaint, suffice it to say that public school funds should follow the public into the schoolhouse. If that schoolhouse happens to be a secular, parochial or other private institution where parents have enrolled their children, so be it.

The last complaint is the weakest link in the chain of anti-choice arguments. The voucher plan is not being forced on the District. To the contrary, Mayor Tony Williams, D.C. Council Education Committee Chairman Kevin Chavous and School Board President Peggy Cafritz have all endorsed a federally funded voucher plan for their constituents. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein — a Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco who, admittedly, has “never before supported a voucher program” — concluded Tuesday in The Washington Post, “If supporting the mayor’s proposal will help us to better understand what works and what doesn’t in terms of educating our youth, then I believe Williams should be allowed to undertake this experiment.” We wholeheartedly concur.

Indeed, senators should give the District what it wants — a budget that offers new money, not just for vouchers, but critical funding for traditional schools as well as charter schools. As things now stand, the mostly partisan bickering raises the flip side of the usual complaint that Democrats level at Republicans: that they are holding the D.C. budget hostage.

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