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D.C. parents worry that the District’s school system is as much a pathway to gang activity as to a high school degree, according to a Republican senator fighting to save the federal voucher program that sends D.C. students to private schools.
“Parents tell us, they know in many cases, in D.C., if they’re sending their kids off to the public schools the chances are very good they’re going to end up in a gang rather than graduating high school,” Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said during a news conference Thursday.
Mr. DeMint was joined by three other lawmakers who also hope to save the voucher program, which was largely defunded in the omnibus spending bill passed by the House of Representatives last week.
The graduation rate for D.C. Public Schools was close to 70 percent last year, the school system has reported, in line with the national average. But the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test for 2007 showed that only 46 percent of elementary school students in the city were proficient in reading and 40 percent were proficient in math.
The numbers were slightly worse in secondary schools. Despite recent improvements, the 235-school system remains among the lowest performers in the country.
Sens. John Ensign of Nevada, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mr. DeMint, all Republicans, are promoting an amendment to the omnibus spending bill to continue the voucher program.
The measure could be put to a vote as early as Monday. Democratic leaders said Thursday night that they did not have the 60 votes needed to end debate and would have to allow Republicans to offer more amendments.
Mr. Kyl said members had at least 35 amendments but that the leadership would try to pare the number down to about a dozen. It had not been decided Thursday night which amendments would reach the floor.
The $410 billion omnibus spending bill provides funding for students now in the Opportunity Scholarship Program but proposes to cut the funding off in 2010. It instructs D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to “promptly take steps to minimize potential disruption and ensure smooth transition” for returning students — unless Congress and the D.C. Council reauthorize the program.
The Republicans’ amendment seeks to strip that language, but Senate Democrats moved Wednesday to prevent the addition of any amendments that could slow the bill’s passage. “Education is a basic civil right,” said Mr. Ensign, who requested a vote on the amendment Thursday but was blocked by Senate Democrats.
The House bill also included a request from President Obama, whose daughters attend the private Sidwell Friends School, for a one-time federal payment of $20 million for public schools.
The $54 million in the bill for D.C. schools provides $20 million for public schools, $20 million for public charter schools and $14 million for the voucher program. The legislation states that the city must submit a “detailed budget proposal” within 60 days of passage.
The issue has created a rift between Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who opposes vouchers, told the Associated Press Wednesday that D.C. children already using vouchers should be allowed to continue.
“I don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they’re happy and safe and satisfied and learning,” he said.
Proponents of the voucher program say that it provides a lifeline for many of the 1,700 students in the program and that the Democrats are kowtowing to the powerful teachers union, which opposes diverting public funds to private schools.
“Right now, we have a leadership who are more responsive to unions and school boards than they are to the general public,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, an advocacy group. “Unless they are made to understand the critical importance of making sure every child is safe, not just now but 10 years from now, we will be in serious trouble.”
Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Louisiana, Utah and Wisconsin also have voucher programs, but only the District’s is federally funded.
The average annual income for those using the program is $23,000 for a family of four and roughly 99 percent of the students are minorities. The maximum scholarship is $7,500 a child.
The Education Department recently released its first evaluation of the program, which showed that voucher students after 19 months of instruction performed slightly better academically than those not receiving voucher money.
• Molly Nevola and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.