- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Despite the opposition of the incoming D.C. mayor and the Democratic president, key House Republican lawmakers say they will push a popular school-voucher program that was canceled by the Obama administration.

A spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and likely chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said her boss and other House leaders continue to support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and intend to pursue its revival.

“Congressman Kline is very focused on restoring the program,” spokeswoman Alexa Marrero said.

She added that presumptive House Speaker-to-be John A. Boehner and Rep. Darrell Issa, incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees D.C. affairs, also “remain strong supporters” of the D.C. voucher program.

Advocates “can count on” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and the ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia, to push for re-funding vouchers, said his spokeswoman, Alisia Essig.

In 2009, Mr. Chaffetz co-sponsored Mr. Boehner’s Preserving D.C. Student Scholarships Act, which would have re-funded the Opportunity Scholarships program, she added.

In 2004, the Bush administration established the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program to provide economically disadvantaged students up to $7,500 in tuition to attend private and religious schools of their parents choosing. But President Obama wanted to direct federal dollars elsewhere, and Congress obliged by prohibiting new students from enrolling in the program.

Advocates said Mr. Obama opened wide the door for a renewed push for vouchers when, in post-election comments last week, he said that education is one area where he and Republicans might find “potential common ground.”

The incoming Republican-led House offers the best chance to expand the voucher program for children trapped in underperforming D.C. schools, advocates said.

“By taking action, reversing course and saving the endangered D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, President Obama will rescue the educational futures of thousands of low-income children who live just blocks from the White House,” said former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, who advocates the three-pronged education-reform approach of public schools, public charter schools and vouchers.

“The president will find a ready and willing coalition of Republicans eager to help him on this — as well as legions of supporters, Democratic and Republican, in Congress and in the District of Columbia itself,” Mr. Chavous said. “Even Education Secretary Arne Duncan indicated that education would be an area of mutual collaboration with Republicans. I submit that the D.C. [Opportunity Scholarship Program] is the place to start.”

Despite his canceling the Opportunity Scholarship Program, Mr. Obama has been supportive of school-reform efforts, including the possibility of teacher firings, though, like most high-ranking federal elected officials, he sends his own children to a private school.

The U.S. Constitution empowers Congress with wide latitude regarding D.C. affairs, and federal lawmakers have traditionally exercised that prerogative during the appropriations process. Unlike his two predecessors, incoming Mayor Vincent C. Gray opposes public funding for school-voucher programs.

Long-standing spending-bill riders once prohibited the city from using local dollars on needle-exchange and medical-marijuana programs. But since the Democrats took over Congress in 2007 and did not extend these riders, the District of Columbia has passed liberal social-policy laws on gay marriage, medical marijuana and other issues.

The degree to which Republicans will push back the city’s recent free run of implementing liberal social policies is uncertain as GOP leaders continue to focus most on transition-related issues. Also, while the scholarship program can be revived through the federal budget process, these other laws are now on the city’s books and thus harder to reverse.

But the city’s elected nonvoting House delegate said the city would try to work with the incoming Republicans for the next two years, and she played down talk of imminent disaster on D.C. oversight issues.

Don’t “prejudge the new Congress,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said after her re-election victory. “In 2012, we will have a much greater slice of the electorate out and can get back to business on voting rights and statehood.”

Still, Washington’s local pro-family activists are also calling on incoming and rising Republicans to put the brakes on the 112th Congress on some D.C. social policies, though the small D.C. Republican Party wants to pursue a cautious approach with their Capitol Hill counterparts.

When asked whether “tea party”-backed Sen.-elect Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and other congressional conservatives threaten the city’s laws on gay marriage and medical marijuana or its push for congressional voting rights, D.C. Republican leaders sounded more like Mrs. Norton, a liberal Democrat.

“With the gains we saw in Congress for the Republicans, we hope to work with the new Congress in educating them on D.C.-related issues,” said Paul Craney, the party’s executive director, who went on to warn D.C. city officials against picking a fight.

“It would be too early to prejudge the freshmen members, and we hope D.C. Democratic elected officials do not soil any potential relationships by casting Republicans as boogeymen or villains. Now is not the time for politics or name-callings; rather, it’s a ripe time to build relationships.”

But social conservatives rejected such a wait-and-see approach, saying the leadership in city hall and the halls of Congress encouraged Mrs. Norton, a gay rights booster and staunch opponent of vouchers, to push the city to the left.

Missy Reilly Smith, a pro-life, pro-voucher Republican who lost her bid for the delegate seat against Mrs. Norton, and other advocates of traditional marriage said D.C. elected officials are hypocrites to push voting rights but at the same time deny residents the right to vote on gay marriage and send their children to the schools of their choice.

Mrs. Norton “wrapped herself in the flag of voting rights, but denied education rights to children. It is absolutely imperative that all our children receive a quality education. Every parent should have a choice for their children,” Mrs. Smith said.

Even some of D.C.’s conservative Democrats urge a reversal of city laws on the family-values front and see the incoming Republicans as allies.

“The marijuana bill is something else that should be revisited,” said longtime Democratic activist Kathryn Pearson-West. “Washington, D.C., is too liberal and could use some moderation. For the first time in my life, I am excited about an incoming Republican Congress — though I don’t want Congress to stay that way forever.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat, but now I am focused solely on issues and policies, particularly family values. Our D.C. leadership did a terrible disservice to the citizens of the District of Columbia when they chose to deny citizens the right to vote on the centuries-old definition of marriage,” she said

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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