Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An effort to preserve D.C.’s school voucher program - which pays parents to send their children to private schools - died Tuesday evening when the Senate rejected a Republican amendment to the $410 billion omnibus spending bill.

The amendment from Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, to strike language in the bill restricting voucher funding and to reinstate funding for the 2009-10 school year went down in a 58-39 vote.

Mr. Ensign said the omnibus bill would “effectively kill” the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows qualified low-income families to claim up to $7,500 per student toward a private education of their choice. About 1,700 students are currently enrolled, and they will have to return to D.C. public schools.

“It’s a little unusual to end a program before you even have the information to evaluate the program,” said Susan Gibbs, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Democrats such as Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, as well as teachers’ unions, voiced concern that the vouchers take federal funds from the public schools.

Mr. Durbin said in response to Mr. Ensign on Tuesday that the General Accountability Office looked at the voucher schools and found some “world class” schools as well as some below average schools, explaining his reasoning for examining the program further before reauthorization.

“They also found schools where somebody’s mom or somebody’s wife declared themselves principles and teachers and went in to teach without college degrees and received federal subsidies to do it,” he said.

Mr. Durbin said safety, teacher’s degrees and standardized tests were not held to public school levels. He said that “those on the other side” have “completely given up on D.C. Public Schools” and that Mr. Ensign’s amendment would further the schools’ destruction.

Mr. Ensign said that as private schools, the voucher schools should be able to make those decisions independently and that parents, such as Mr. Durbin, would not continue to choose private school education for their children if they thought it was the worst of the placements for their children.

“Parents are lined up to give their children a better future through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship,” said Mr. Ensign. “And why not? It´s a better education in a safe environment. For policymakers, it should have been just as simple because it’s also less expensive.”

D.C. public schools enrolled about 50,000 students in 2007, receiving federal funds, capital funds and funds from the D.C. Council in addition to the school district’s own operating budget. It is estimated that the school system spent $14,000 per student, about twice as much as voucher recipients get.

Patricia William worries for the future of her two children, both in the voucher program. The success of her eldest son and aspiring president, Fransoir, 12, has motivated her to go back to school for a nursing degree.

“It’s not a competition between public schools, charter and private,” said Ms. William. “Not all schools work the same for all children and we, as parents, should have the right to chose the school that works for them.”

The mother of two boys recalls her eldest’s struggle in public school, and the effect on his mood and stability. After entering Sacred Heart School, a bilingual Catholic school in Columbia Heights, five years ago at the start of the voucher program, she noticed a “tremendous impact emotionally, academically and physically,” as Fransoir got the attention he needed.

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