Wednesday, September 3, 2003

House Republican leaders are moving ahead on a $17 million school-choice plan for the District, amid concerns that some lawmakers may have been swayed by the National Education Association’s anti-voucher campaign during the August congressional recess.

“There are a number of moderate members asking questions about the bill, apparently worried about how their votes will be portrayed by the education establishment if they support the proposal,” a senior Republican aide said.

So far, only three House Republicans have announced they will vote against the plan: Reps. Sam Graves of Missouri, Timothy V. Johnson of Illinois, and John M. McHugh of New York.

The plan backed by the Bush administration is included in the District’s yearly $6.3 billion appropriation bill. It is supported by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, chairman of the council’s education committee — all Democrats — and co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, John A. Boehner of Ohio, and Democrat William O. Lipinski of Illinois.

The plan would provide scholarship vouchers of up to $7,500, by lottery, to an estimated 2,000 families who wanted to move their children from underachieving or failing D.C. public schools to one of the city’s 77 private schools.

The legislation calls for a five-year federally funded pilot study by outside researchers of the achievement of students who win vouchers, compared with achievement of students who apply but do not win the lottery and remain in D.C. public schools.

Yesterday, local voucher opponents rallied against the plan.

“We have to go and tell them one by one with this group of people that the District of Columbia does not want vouchers,” said D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat.

He said federal money that would go to the vouchers should instead go to D.C. teachers’ raises, building renovations and other improvements to the public school system.

But a group of D.C. parents had a different message when they showed up at the Rayburn House Office Building to voice their support for the voucher bill. Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents United for Choice, hoped that the group of parents could get in a word with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat.

“I think she needs to realize that parents are tired of waiting,” she said. “They’re tired of hearing promises that kids are going to get better schools in the future when kids aren’t getting them now.”

Nina S. Rees, the U.S. Education Department’s deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement, says the voucher bill offers an “experimental design” to evaluate the impact of school choice.

The District has many private schools with “a tradition of excellence,” Mrs. Rees said in an interview. “So within the same districts where a lot of public schools are failing, you have good quality private schools that are offering a solid education at a fraction of the cost of sending the children to public schools.”

The average yearly per-pupil cost in D.C. public schools was $10,107 in 1999-2000, while the national average was $6,911, according to the Education Department. A Cato Institute study issued last week said the median private-school tuition in the District was $4,500 for elementary schools and $16,075 for high schools.

During the August congressional recess, the NEA waged a vigorous lobbying effort to sway lawmakers. “Tell Congress: ‘Just Say No’ to D.C. Vouchers,” says a “legislative alert” on the teachers union’s Web site, which urges the NEA’s 2.7 million members to lobby members of Congress.

“There is no solid evidence that vouchers improve student achievement,” the NEA alert said. “Vouchers would not expand the options available to parents in the District. Vouchers lack accountability. Vouchers do nothing to improve opportunities for children in D.C. public schools.”

Mrs. Rees said the NEA opposition is wrong on all counts, citing a recent study of Florida’s “A-Plus” choice program, which not only showed gains for students receiving vouchers, but also showed that competition created by choice programs gives chronically failing public schools incentive to improve.

As in other urban systems, the District is “spending a lot of money per pupil on their educational system, yet they’re getting very poor results,” Mrs. Rees said. “So from the beginning, one could argue that we cannot get any worse than this. Let’s try something a little bit different.”

• Patrick Badgley contributed to this report.

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