Published Online: January 24, 2011
Published in Print: January 26, 2011, as Choice Advocates See Issue Rising on Congressional Radar

Choice Advocates See Hope in New Congress

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., left, is crafting legislation to reinvigorate a federal voucher program for the District of Columbia. The senator, shown in 2009 discussing reauthorization of the program with former Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, now-retired Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, plans to team with House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, on the fresh effort.
—Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images-File

School choice advocates have high hopes that their issues—particularly a move to pump new life into the federal school voucher program for the District of Columbia—may be back on the table, now that Republicans are in control of the U.S. House of Representatives and enjoy a bolstered minority in the U.S. Senate.

But given the conservative fiscal climate, it’s less likely that Republicans will move to create a new federal voucher program to help low-income students in struggling public schools transfer to a private school. The GOP campaigned on reining in spending and eliminating programs, not creating new ones.

“The federalist argument is that education is a state and local issue. … That’s why D.C. is more and more attractive,” said Nina Rees, who served as assistant secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. “There is a constitutional role for the federal government [in overseeing the nation’s capital] and also they’ve had a program, and the framework around it is in place.”

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats, is teaming up with Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the speaker of the House, to craft legislation that would permit new students to take advantage of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a Lieberman aide said.

The program was enacted by Congress in 2004 to provide scholarships of up to $7,500 for low-income children in the 58,000-student District of Columbia school system to attend higher-performing private schools. Students in low-performing schools and those from low-income families are given priority.

Once Democrats were in control of both Congress and the White House in 2009, the program’s authorization was allowed to expire. Students already enrolled in the program were allowed to remain, however.

Sen. Lieberman, who is the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over policy for the District of Columbia, mounted an attempt to renew the program in the last Congress.

The measure was rejected on a vote of 55-42. The vote was mainly party-line, with all Republicans voting in favor and most Democrats opposed. But it drew some Democratic support from Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Since then, there’s been a marked shift in the political landscape.

Opponents Gear Up

Traditional opponents of vouchers are also preparing for a fight—they’re especially worried about the financial implications for cash-strapped districts of spending on school choice.

“We are of course, concerned with it coming up in this Congress,” said Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union based in Washington. Given the tough fiscal situation districts face, “now doesn’t seem to be the time to be diverting scarce taxpayer dollars away from public education towards private schools,” she said.

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Sen. Lieberman’s legislation will continue the three-pronged approach begun in the 2004 version of the legislation. It would give new and equal funding to the voucher program, the district’s charter schools, and the public school system. The structure essentially squelches arguments that the legislation would divert funding from public schools, the Lieberman aide said.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the newly minted chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, “is a strong supporter of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and will work to restore that program’s authorization,” a spokesman said last week.

A backer of parental choice, Rep. Kline “wants the federal government to do more to empower parents,” Rep. Kline’s spokesman said. The congressman “also believes that, because the federal government only funds about 10 percent of total education spending in this country, the greatest opportunity to expand scholarship programs and other school choice initiatives is at the state and local level.”

Public school choice, more generally, is a key part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose reauthorization has been pending since 2007. Congress is expected to renew its attempt to rewrite the law this year.

Currently, schools that miss the NCLB law’s achievement targets must allow students to transfer to a better-performing public school. In its blueprint last year for renewing the law, the Obama administration sought to scrap that requirement.

The proposal drew criticism from GOP lawmakers—including Rep. Kline—who argued at the time the blueprint was released that taking away the choice option would leave students no escape from failing schools as those schools worked through the turnaround process.

Other Options

There may be other ways for school-choice proponents to put their stamp on federal legislation, said Ms. Rees, who is now the senior vice president for strategic initiatives at Knowledge Universe, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based education investment company.

One option, she said: flexibility or funding incentives for schools to expand online learning options.

“Using online tools is a quick and easy way of giving families options without transporting the kids physically to another building,” she said. “It could be considerable cheaper.”

Vouchers for students in special education, particularly those from military families, could also end up in the congressional mix. A recent defense-spending bill included language that would have created a $5 million pilot program aimed at offering scholarships of up to $7,500 per year for school costs, but the provision was ultimately scrapped. ("Vouchers Proposed for Disabled Pupils in Military Homes," Nov. 3, 2010.)

Vol. 30, Issue 18, Pages 17,20

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