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Published in Print: July 9, 2003, as Emotions Run High in D.C. School Voucher Hearing

Emotions Run High in D.C. School Voucher Hearing

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A contentious hearing June 24 on a plan for federally financed tuition vouchers for District of Columbia students made it clear that a significant gap remains between those who support the proposal and those who oppose it.

Even so, voucher advocates hope the bill—which would extend vouchers to parents here who want to send their children to private schools with public money—will be the springboard for similar programs in other parts of the country.

But critics of the plan, such as District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who hammered pro-voucher witnesses who appeared before the House Government Reform Committee hearing last month, made it clear they'll do whatever they can to keep the bill from landing on President Bush's desk.

At the hearing, Ms. Norton, a Democrat who is the capital city's nonvoting representative in Congress, maintained that the measure would substantially weaken an already struggling local public school system. She called it a "very slim vouchers-only bill" that "will not adequately care for the educational needs of all of our city's children."

But blocking the bill may prove to be difficult, because the $15 million proposal has attracted some unexpected supporters, including Democratic Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who recently reversed his anti-voucher stance. ("D.C. Vouchers: Idea Whose Time Has Come?," May 21, 2003.)

A markup of the bill was scheduled for July 8.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., the author of the bill and the chairman of the Government Reform Committee, which provides House oversight of the District of Columbia, pledged at the hearing that the plan would not sap money from the city's public school system or from charter schools, as critics have charged.

"Authorization for spending on D.C. public schools and charter schools already exists," said Mr. Davis. "The debate will be over how high that spending should be. I think it will be higher at the end of this journey."

But critics remain skeptical. The authors of the legislation have an agenda to "use public funds to support private schools that have no accountability to the citizens," Iris Toyer, a co-chair of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, which opposes vouchers, said in a statement.

Advocates Gain Momentum

The bill, called the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003, would give federal grants of up to $7,500 a year to Washington families earning up to 180 percent of the poverty level or about $27,500 for a family of three. Families could use that money to pay tuition at religious or other private schools.

Part of a proposed $75 million national school choice incentive plan in President Bush's 2004 budget, the plan would cover up to 2,000 students in the District of Columbia.

Opponents say they are worried that the city's public schools would be hit hard by the loss of the 2,000 students and the per-pupil federal money tied to them.

But backers of the idea have some momentum on their side.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Cleveland. In April, Colorado adopted a voucher program aimed at low-income families. Although some other recent voucher proposals—such as one in Louisiana—have died, passage of the District of Columbia measure could encourage other cities or states to propose such plans, said Dan Langan, a spokesman for the Department of Education.

A successful plan in the nation's capital would "send a strong message to the rest of the country that choice ... should be on the menu of options for improving our schools," Mr. Langan said in a statement.

Mayor Williams said his support for the voucher plan was contingent on continued financial backing from the federal government for the 67,500-student District of Columbia public schools. He also insisted that the focus of the voucher program be on low-income families, and that the program include an accountability and evaluation component to see if it's working.

Vol. 22, Issue 42, Page 23

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