- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

The House, by a one-vote margin, yesterday retained a school-choice program in the District’s $7.4 billion appropriation for fiscal year 2004.

The House voted 209-208 to start a $10 million federally funded school-voucher pilot program in the District to allow an estimated 2,000 children to leave failing public schools for private schools.

The program was proposed by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, and Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

On Friday, the House adopted the school-choice initiative 205-203, with 26 lawmakers absent.

Yesterday at 9 p.m., with 20 members absent and the vote tied 208-208 long after the usual 15 minutes for voting, Democrats heckled the House presiding officer to close the vote.

But Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican, who was attending a function off Capitol Hill, rushed in to break the tie.

The D.C. funding package was then approved 210-206.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, in an impassioned plea against vouchers, threatened Republicans that their pro-voucher votes would be used against them in next year’s congressional elections.

“Vote ‘no’ on Davis; vote ‘no’ on final passage; do not flip on vouchers,” Mrs. Norton told lawmakers before the vote.

“You’ll pay the price. We’ll try to see to it that you do,” the District’s nonvoting Democratic delegate said.

The five-year program, to be studied by federal researchers for its effectiveness in raising student achievement, will provide scholarships of up to $7,500 for children in D.C. schools identified as failing, to attend private elementary, middle or high schools, including religious schools.

“This was a great victory for the children of Washington, D.C., and every parent in D.C. will have more hope as a result of this option,” Mr. Boehner said.

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, voted against vouchers, but conceded, “I think some positive results will occur. We’ll have some concrete evidence” whether school choice helps improve student achievement, he said.

“Too many schools in the District are not teaching well, and they’re not safe to send their kids to,” the Alexandria Democrat said. “And certainly not one member of Congress would send their kids there.”

Fifteen Republicans voted against their leadership to oppose the voucher plan and three Democrats split with their party to support school choice.

One Republican opponent, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, said, “There’s a case for vouchers, probably stronger for the District of Columbia than any other jurisdiction in the country. But I am very apprehensive that public schools could become the repository of difficult-to-educate and handicapped kids. This would be a shame for America.”

The appropriations bill awards a $466 million federal payment to the District, including $163.8 million for D.C. courts. In addition, the District estimates it will receive $1.8 billion from various federal grant programs.

The House-passed bill approves a $127 million increase in D.C. government spending for fiscal year 2004, starting Oct. 1.

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