- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

City leaders Thursday told a congressional subcommittee that they would be open to discussions about extending the D.C. school voucher program past the point recommended by President Obama.

Testifying before the House Committee on Appropriations’ financial services subcommittee, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray both noted their support for Mr. Obama’s intention to allow students enrolled in the voucher program to remain in it until they graduate, but not to grant any scholarships to new students.

But when asked by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson - Missouri Republican and ranking minority member on the subcommittee - about whether the “younger brothers and sisters” of the current voucher students should be allowed to enroll in the program while the city continues its school reform efforts, Mr. Fenty said he would welcome discussions on the topic.

“I think that has tremendous merit, Congresswoman,” the mayor said. “I think [the Obama proposal] is a great foundation to figure out just how much stronger you make the program. And so we’re open to it and we’d be glad to discuss it further.”

Mr. Gray, who is personally opposed to vouchers but supportive of the Obama proposal, also told the Mrs. Emerson he’d “be happy to have any discussions you would wish around this issue.”

“I certainly, like the mayor, am committed to having the strongest possible public education system we can have in the District of Columbia,” the chairman said.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program was created five years ago and provides scholarships of up to $7,500 for students from underprivileged families to attend private schools.

Students eligible for the program come from households with an income that is no more than 185 percent of the poverty line, which is about $39,220 for a family of four.

Funding the D.C. scholarships has been a point of contention between political parties, with Republicans generally supportive of the program and Democrats generally opposing it.

The omnibus spending plan signed by Mr. Obama in March cuts the program in 2010 and makes its future contingent on the approval of the D.C. Council and Congress. However, the president’s fiscal 2010 budget calls for the program to be extended for current students only.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs also held a hearing focused specifically on the voucher program.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the committee, is an ardent supporter of the scholarships and said he has a promise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, that the program’s reauthorization would be brought to a full Senate vote before it expires.

• Gary Emerling can be reached at gemerling@washingtontimes.com.

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