Lawmakers and D.C. officials are waiting to see whether President Obama will side with teachers’ unions opposed to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which is set for a House vote on reauthorization this week.
The program, which provides low-income students with the opportunity to attend private school, has the support of Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of the City Council. But the White House has tried several times to eliminate the program, a priority of former Speaker John A. Boehner.
“The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is a proven success with support from Mayor Bowser,” said Doug Andres, a top aide to Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “So the choice for President Obama is simple: stand with D.C. kids and their mayor or entrenched special interests.”
House Republican leaders plan to vote on the legislation, called the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, to reauthorize the voucher program on Thursday.
Mr. Obama, whose daughters attend the elite Sidwell Friends private school in the District, has tried to cut the D.C. voucher program in his proposed federal budget. It’s his last chance to kill the program; five years ago, the White House came out against the program’s renewal but didn’t issue a veto threat.
Last fall, when a House committee was considering the legislation, the White House said it was “strongly opposed” to the bill.
“Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that D.C. vouchers have not yielded statistically significant improvements in student achievement by scholarship recipients compared to other students not receiving vouchers,” the White House said.
The administration also objected that the bill “would extend this voucher program to a new population of students previously attending private schools.”
“Instead of using federal resources to support a handful of students in private schools, the federal government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students,” the White House said.
During the 2011 spending negotiations with the White House, Mr. Boehner succeeded in preserving the voucher program while abandoning the fight to strip funding from the EPA, Planned Parenthood and other budget goals.
Advocates of the voucher plan say it has helped to improve graduation rates by more than 20 percentage points over the life of the program.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform approved the reauthorization bill in April on a voice vote. It reauthorizes the SOAR Act for five years to continue the three-sector approach to education in the District, providing funding for D.C. Public Schools, D.C. public charter schools and the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
When Mr. Obama came to office in 2009, he tried to kill the program, then agreed on a plan that would allow then-current recipients of the vouchers to continue, but would not allow new people into the program. Republicans renewed the program through 2016 after they took back control of the House.
The mayor wrote a letter to congressional leaders in December urging them to renew the legislation, saying that the District schools would lose $30 million annually without it, creating a “difficult budget gap for the city to fill.”
“The voucher program does not take away from education funding in the District,” she wrote. “On the contrary, it adds to it.”