D.C. Voucher Proposal Ties Up Spending Bill
The Senate failed twice last week to end a Democratic filibuster of a bill that would allow federal money to pay tuition at private schools for needy District of Columbia students.
The $5 million voucher plan, which would include religious schools, is a tiny part of a $5 billion spending bill that would set the capital city's budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. But while the bill includes other contentious provisions, it is largely the voucher language that has tied up the legislation for several weeks. That issue dominated Senate floor debate.
City officials lobbied Democrats heavily to let the legislation go forward even though the local leaders generally oppose the voucher plan.
But proponents fell short of the 60 votes needed to end debate, voting 54-44 on the procedural motion Feb. 27, and 52-42 two days later.
"When a highly Democratic city would agree on this bill, it seems hard for me to understand how this body can't support it," Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of a subcommittee that oversees spending for the Washington city government, said following the second vote.
Mr. Jeffords, a longtime foe of vouchers, had forged a compromise with House Republicans that would let the District of Columbia City Council decide how to spend the $5 million, which could be used for "scholarships" of up to $3,000, or $1,500 vouchers for remedial tutoring or other supplemental programs. (SeeEducation Week, Feb. 7, 1996.)
Senate leaders scheduled a third cloture vote for March 5.
The House has already passed the bill. But even if it is sent to the White House, it would likely face a veto from President Clinton.
Setting a Precedent
"A private-school-voucher system in the nation's capital would set a dangerous precedent for using federal taxpayer funds for private schools across the country," senior Clinton administration officials wrote in recommending a veto.
The administration would support scholarships for after-school programs at "public or private nonsectarian schools," the White House document added.
Advocates on both sides of the voucher debate view the District of Columbia bill as a potentially important precedent, and Democrats made that argument repeatedly in opposing it in last week's floor debate.
Opponents also said a voucher program could further damage a struggling school system.
"I worry this legislation will skim the best students and leave the school system with little federal help," said Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio.
While the District of Columbia school board president, Karen Shook, is anxious to end the current budgetary uncertainty, she has similar concerns.
"If vouchers are started in the district, congressmen could go home and say, 'We can do it here too,"' Ms. Shook said.
Indeed, just hours before the first Senate vote on the city's appropriations bill, House Republicans introduced a proposal that would pump up to $5 billion in federal money over five years into a broader voucher plan.
The "Community Renewal Project" would bring a program similar to the one proposed for the capital city to 100 communities in poor urban and rural areas across the country. It is part of an enterprise-zone initiative targeting those communities for a variety of programs and tax breaks. Legislation could be introduced later this month.
Meanwhile, proponents of the Washington voucher plan argued that lawmakers were robbing disadvantaged children of the opportunity for a better education.
"There are parents who are desperate for options for their children," said Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind., arguing that the proposal was "an extraordinarily modest attempt to experiment with the concept of school choice."
"Senate Democrats placed the interests of unions ahead of the needs of D.C. children," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports vouchers and other choice programs.
Not only is the District of Columbia's federal aid in limbo halfway through the fiscal year, but a federally appointed financial-control board has called for $17 million in cuts from the $595 million school budget approved by the City Council.
That amounts to eliminating 1,392 staff positions and closing six schools by the end of the summer, Ms. Shook said.
"I feel like I'm in a vise and it just squeezed a little tighter," she said.
And last week's action cast doubt on the viability of other education-reform provisions in the city's spending bill, including efforts to set academic standards, renovate school facilities, build a residential school, and set up charter schools.
House Republicans have said that they would pull the entire $15 million school-reform package if the voucher plan is defeated, but it was unclear next week what lawmakers' next step would be if the bill dies.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's nonvoting congressional representative, has asked lawmakers to include the city's budget in a continuing resolution being drafted to provide funding for several agencies, including the Department of Education, after the current federal stopgap spending bill expires March 15.
Art Jutton, the legislative director for Rep. James T. Walsh, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia, said that is one option, but it is unclear if the House would approve it.
"It's inappropriate for us to say or do anything until the Senate does its work," Mr. Jutton said.