The mayor of the District, in an unusual move, was invited onto the Senate floor yesterday to assist lawmakers in pushing a $13 million school-voucher program for local low-income families whose children attend failing public schools.
Anthony A. Williams entered the Senate chamber at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, as the proposal’s Democratic opponents prepared to launch a barrage of criticism against the initiative in the D.C. funding bill.
By voice vote last night, the Senate accepted an amendment by Mrs. Feinstein, who supports the voucher program, requiring voucher students to be tested the same as public school students under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The amendment also requires voucher students to be taught by instructors with college degrees.
The changes were part of a bigger package of requirements proposed by Democratic Sens. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware.
Further votes were postponed until next week after voucher advocates refused to accept other major restrictions supported by Mrs. Landrieu and Mr. Carper. Those restrictions would bind private schools to federal mandates involving tuition costs, hiring practices and other matters.
“Why is everybody so threatened by it?” asked Mrs. Feinstein about opposition by many lawmakers and the National Education Association, the nation’s most powerful teachers union.
“The mayor has asked for a five-year pilot. He said it would be for the less-affluent. … This is a family of four that earns $34,000 a year or below, and that these children would be given priority by lottery to have an opportunity to go to another school.”
The program, co-authored by Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, includes $40 million in “new money” for public school improvement, charter schools and a voucher program to give $7,500 scholarships to an estimated 2,000 D.C. students “trapped” in failing public schools, Mrs. Feinstein said.
Senate rules bar anyone other than senators from speaking publicly in the chamber, so Mrs. Feinstein addressed Mr. Williams and asked him questions as debate unfolded.
The mayor, sitting with Senate staffers at the back of the chamber, nodded as Mrs. Feinstein said, “I think the testing we have built into it, the evaluation component, the fact that your feet are going to be to the fire, because this is your program, and it is going to succeed or fail based on your energy, your staying power, your drive, your motivation, and I know it is there.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, accused the mayor of accepting “a Faustian bargain” from Republicans to get $40 million for school improvement, saying Senate voucher advocates were using the District as their “political playground.”
Noting the presence on the Senate floor of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who opposes the voucher program, Mr. Durbin said she has “stood fast year after weary year, beating off every assault on home rule, with some success and a few setbacks.”
The mayor shook his head as Mr. Durbin asked, “Republicans said if we will give you $13 million for your public schools that you hadn’t anticipated, $13 million for charter schools, will you sit still for and embrace and endorse and help us pass the first federally funded voucher program for private schools in America?”
Mr. DeWine, chairman of the Senate Appropriations District of Columbia subcommittee, and Mrs. Feinstein responded that Mr. Williams initiated the program on his own.
“The mayor’s had a consistent public record of wanting more money for schools. He’s not bashful about that,” Mrs. Feinstein said.