Friday, March 13, 2009

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty called for continued federal funding for a program that permits underprivileged children to attend private school, breaking with the congressional leaders of his own Democratic Party who ended the initiative.

“Political leaders can debate the merits of vouchers, but we should not disrupt the education of children who are presently enrolled in private schools through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Mr. Fenty said in his first public comment on the issue.

The remark, in a Wednesday night e-mail to The Washington Times, puts the mayor at odds with Democrats on Capitol Hill, who late last week circulated a document indicating that they have no plans to reconsider the program, which loses its funding next year in the $410 billion omnibus spending package.

“The committee does not anticipate reauthorizing the program,” a Democratic staffer on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said in the document obtained by The Times.

A spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and the committee’s ranking member, accused Democrats of being disingenuous when they said during debate on the bill that they were open to reconsidering the program.

“Talk of hearings, assertions that no final decision had been made, were deceptive double-talk,” spokesman Frederick Hill said. “Democrats on the House committee that would have to reauthorize the program had already decided poor D.C. children shouldn’t be in private schools.”

Mr. Fenty now joins President Obama in arguing for allowing children now in the program to stay in it through graduation.

“The president has repeatedly said that school vouchers are not a long-term solution to our educational challenges, but in this instance believes that we should try to find a way to keep from disrupting the students currently enrolled in this program,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Thursday. “He looks forward to working with Congress to find a solution.”

The omnibus package calls for the program, which provides $12.1 million annually for about 1,700 city students, to end after the 2009-10 school year unless Congress and the D.C. Council reauthorize it.

President Bush started the program five years ago, the only federally funded voucher system in the country. It has since been a target for Democrats, who draw support from the teachers unions that oppose it.

Mr. Obama signed the spending bill Wednesday, which means no new students will be enrolled and families in the program that cannot afford tuition must send their children to public schools in fall 2010.

D.C. public school officials said Thursday that they can accommodate all of the voucher students. The D.C. system has one of the highest per-student costs in the country, while ranking among the lowest in math and reading scores.

Each student in the voucher program can receive as much as $7,500 annually. The D.C. Public Schools system spends about $14,000 on each of its roughly 50,000 students.

A study conducted through 2006 by the Education Department’s Government Accountability Office found no significant difference between voucher and public-school students in test scores or perception of safety.

Congressional Republicans, including Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, also have tried to extend the program.

Sen. Joe Lieberman - chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the program in the Senate - voted in favor of the Ensign amendment and has said that he intends to hold hearings this spring.

Still, supporters have little optimism.

“Families have to make decisions for fall 2010,” Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said recently. “They can’t wait around for Congress to play with the future of their kids.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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