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House Vote Re-launches District School Vouchers Program

4/7/2011, 1:20 a.m.
A bill to reinstate school vouchers in the District recently passed in the House of...
House Speaker John Boehner (right) wants school vouchers reinstated in the District. City Council Chairman Kwame Brown (left) supports vouchers, saying families feel empowered and uplifted by expanded school choice. Courtesy photos  

A bill to reinstate school vouchers in the District recently passed in the House of Representatives.

In House floor action on March 30 that was led by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who helped craft the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR) seven years ago to provide better educational choices for the nation's students, a vote of 225 to 195 was cast largely along party lines.

As a result, the local initiative tagged the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program -- in accordance with President Barack Obama's 2012 budget - is now earmarked to receive $20 million in federal funding that will enable low-income and other needy students in the city to attend private and charter schools.

The House's nod for the program, has also given D.C. the distinction of being the only such program to receive federal money.

School vouchers are certificates issued by the government to parents who can apply them towards their children's tuition. Re-launching of the program after it was phased out two years ago, will provide a subsidy of $12,000 for each participating student and cost the government $300 million over five years.

The thrust toward school vouchers has become a national movement, with reports stating that currently more than 70 percent of students across the country attend privately-run but publicly-funded schools.

Boehner, who attended Catholic schools, said in emotion-packed comments that the District's program would serve as a model for the rest of the country.

"Thousands of families have taken advantage of [D.C.'s] scholarship program and there's strong evidence that it's both effective and cost-effective," Boehner said.

"And unfortunately the education establishment in this country sees this program as a threat."

But Boehner said that in reality, the program provides an opportunity to raise the bar, because competition makes everybody better.

While Mayor Vincent Gray opposes vouchers, City Council Chairman Kwame Brown supports them, saying in testimony before the House in February that low-income parents benefit from more school choices.

"[The] bill is a step in the right direction as it authorizes $60 million to create better educational outcomes for our young people," Brown, 40, said in promoting its passage. "The data suggests that students participating in the program are benefiting from the experience -- academically and otherwise."

Southeast resident Martha Jacobs, 49, agrees.

"You've got some low-income parents whose kids need a better education than the one they're getting in D.C. public schools," Jacobs said.

"I have a grandson whose mother was able to get him into a better school with the help of vouchers. His grades are much better and now he's talking about getting a college degree, having realized that education can pay off."

Nevertheless, many local officials -- including District Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton - still regard the House's approval as an intrusion into local affairs. Also, while the Obama administration has voiced opposition, it has yet to threaten a veto.

Norton believes the bill weakens the public education system.

She noted during a three-hour debate against it, that the legislation would deprive District residents of the liberty every other district has in deciding education issues. Norton also voiced opposition over targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools rather than creating access to great public schools for all students.

"Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that the D.C. program has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.," Norton said in a statement.

The National Education Association has also vehemently opposed the vouchers, adding that research has found no differences in the academic achievement of voucher students compared to public school students.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel could not be reached for immediate comment, but has said that vouchers will never provide every child with access to a great school.

"They do not improve the achievement of students who take them, and they do nothing to improve public schools," Van Roekel said in a statement posted on the organization's web site.

"Instead, vouchers leave most children behind, especially those with special needs, and they create a need for additional bureaucracy to administer and monitor such programs."

The bill is now headed to the Senate for additional discussion