The Senate yesterday approved an education package that would establish an experimental school-voucher program in the District worth $40 million annually for the next five years.
In a 65-28 vote, the Senate approved the plan to allow at least 1,700 poor D.C. public-school students to receive vouchers worth as much as $7,500 to help pay for a private-school education. Eligible students will have to be admitted to a private school and must cover costs exceeding their vouchers.
“School choice is one policy that will help create an educational system that makes no distinction between the poor and the privileged in terms of the quality of education received,” said Education Secretary Rod Paige.
Mr. Paige, who labored with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Democrat, to win congressional passage of the school vouchers, called yesterday’s Senate vote “a truly historic event in the drive to provide educational choices to the children of the District.”
The bill, which the House passed last month in a 209-208 vote, is part of an omnibus spending package that now heads to President Bush, who has said he would sign it into law. President Clinton vetoed a similar D.C. voucher bill six years ago.
“This is the biggest education accomplishment in this city in 20 years,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. “Its leaders should be congratulated for being willing to stand up against enormous establishment pressure to keep business as usual in the schools.”
The experimental program has wide implications for federal funding of school-choice programs. Mr. Bush, who advocates school choice, has already proposed $50 million for vouchers in the next budget year.
The D.C. bill provides $13 million each year for a voucher scholarship program; $13 million for teacher training and recruitment, and improving student achievement via tutoring and public school choice; and $13 million to support existing charter schools and create five new charter schools in the District. The remaining $1 million is to pay administrative costs.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and voucher opponents gathered on Capitol Hill and announced plans to repeal the voucher provision before it goes into effect in September.
Mr. Kennedy said he wants to shift the $13 million for voucher scholarships to public schools. He said the voucher bill was placed in the omnibus package because it could not survive a straight vote in the Senate.
Lorraine Miller, president of the Washington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the voucher bill was approved because the city lacks full voting representation in Congress.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting representative, had led opposition to the voucher initiative.
Voucher supporters said the bill was a carefully crafted compromise that they will fight to keep intact.
Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mr. Williams, said voucher opponents “need to understand that the $40 million included in the bill is $40 million the city doesn’t already have.”
Mr. Bullock said he doubts Congress will revisit spending plans it has already approved. “It easily passed the Senate, and I don’t see any of that support eroding,” he said.
Participation in the program is limited to the “most needy students trapped in the nation’s most troubled public schools,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee.
Scholarships would be available only to children from households whose income is 185 percent of the poverty level or less.
Under the voucher plan, priority would be given to students in schools identified as underachieving according to the No Child Left Behind Act. The District’s long-struggling school system has about 65,000 students.
Mr. Paige and Mr. Williams will choose an organization to administer the voucher program. According to the congressional legislation, they will also determine such details as teacher-quality criteria and “strong accountability measures” for student progress.
The libertarian Cato Institute, in a survey, found the median per-student cost for private elementary schools in the District is $4,500 per year. Slightly more than a third of D.C. private schools have yearly tuitions of $10,000 or more.
According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, tuition at 60 private schools is less than $3,200, and less than $4,000 at 28 other schools.
“That illustrates the potential purchasing power of the opportunity scholarships,” Mr. Boehner said.