- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

House Speaker John A. Boehner plans to meet President Obama’s call for bipartisanship and education reform with legislation that would “totally revive” the D.C. voucher program, which the president killed in 2009.

On Wednesday, Mr. Boehner, a school-choice stalwart, will announce plans to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and provide funds for traditional and charter public schools.

He also planned to highlight the issue at Tuesday night’s State of the Union address by playing host to D.C. voucher supporters, including the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Washington, in the House gallery.

The three-sector funding approach, instituted under the Bush administration, won bipartisan congressional support in 2004. By 2009, when the Obama administration and Democrat-led 111th Congress began phasing out the federally funded scholarships, it had won over seven D.C. Council members who urged the Obama administration against pulling funding from the popular program.

Current Council Chairman Kwame Brown was among those supporters, though new Mayor Vincent C. Gray still opposes vouchers.

“The legislation will authorize school improvement funds for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, D.C. Public Schools and D.C. charter schools,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. “It’s continuing the separate funding as currently allocated in the D.C./Financial Services bill. We want to totally revive the program, allowing it to serve current scholarship students and expand it to serve new students.”

The voucher program is helping an estimated 1,000 poor children attend the private or parochial school of their parents’ choosing with scholarships up to $7,500 — about half the public schools’ per-pupil spending.

Many voucher recipients attend Roman Catholic schools, where tuition is as low as $5,200.

But Democrats and union leaders oppose vouchers and have succeeded in beating back attempts to resurrect the program, including legislative efforts made in 2010 by Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent.

Mr. Lieberman plans to introduce in the Senate a companion bill to Mr. Boehner’s proposal.

Mr. Obama, who has limited his school-choice support to backing public charter schools, opened the door to the possibility of bipartisan school reform after major Republican victories in the November midterm elections.

Saying he told Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, that he looked “forward to working with them,” the president noted that education is a “potential” issue for bipartisan common ground.

“I think everybody in this country thinks that we’ve got to make sure our kids are equipped in terms of their education, their science background, their math backgrounds, to compete in this new global economy,” Mr. Obama said at a Nov. 3 White House news conference. “And that’s going to be an area where I think there’s potential common ground.”

Mr. Boehner will take the president’s suggestion Wednesday, the day after Mr. Obama renews his push for bipartisanship and education initiatives in his State of the Union address, where several notable voucher supporters, including Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl and some young recipients, will be seated in the House gallery.

The cardinal said he was honored to be a guest of the House speaker and to accompany some of the children who attend archdiocesan schools on scholarship.

“Here in Washington, the church has helped to ensure that the District’s most at-risk children receive a quality education,” he said. “We are grateful to Speaker Boehner for his continuing support for these children that they may not only receive an excellent education but also may have hope for the future. It is difficult to envision what could outweigh the futures and hopes of the young people of this city.”

Mr. Boehner also invited Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for Choice, who told The Washington Times that she is keeping a “glass-half-full perspective” because of prior roadblocks in the Senate.

“We have to lobby and educate to make sure federal and local government are involved,” said Ms. Walden Ford, who also is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

“It’s important that Kwame Brown is now council chair. That’s significant. There’s no reason to believe the mayor will change his position, but you never know. The next few weeks will be very telling.”

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

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