D.C. Bill Stirs Debate Over Federal Policy

By Mark Pitsch & Peter Schmidt Washington — November 15, 1995 8 min read

A controversial “education scholarship” program for low-income District of Columbia students recently endorsed by the House has broad implications for federal policy, but other congressional reform ideas may ultimately have a bigger impact on this city’s troubled schools.

The voucher plan may face resistance in the Senate or a presidential veto. If it were enacted, it would almost surely be challenged in court. Moreover, logistical and economic barriers would probably limit scholarship recipients’ choices to a relative handful of private schools.

The proposal is part of an ambitious school-reform package that would also require the 80,000-student school district to set challenging academic standards and submit reform plans to Congress. (See related story, 11/8/95.)

Most of the plan--which was drawn up under the leadership of Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis.--has been lauded by local school officials and activists, who were asked for their input during its development.

“I honestly believe that, if it actually is enacted into law and funded, it represents an opportunity for expanding choice for parents, and offers educational possibilities and opportunities for kids which really have not existed in the district for a long time, if ever,” said Jim Ford, the staff director of the City Council’s education committee.

Charter Schools

But many local leaders are opposed to the scholarships--which could be used at public or private schools--and a separate provision allowing private organizations to form public charter schools in the city, and they said these proposals had soured their reaction to the entire House plan.

“The focus of Congress should be working with us to fix public education, instead of just opting out and choosing private options,” Jay E. Silberman, a member of the District of Columbia school board, said in an interview last week.

The charter school provisions would give the school board and the city’s public and federally chartered universities--American, Gallaudet, George Washington, Howard, and the University of the District of Columbia--the authority to approve proposals for such independent, publicly financed schools. Spokesmen for three of the universities said they knew nothing of the plan, but indicated that the institutions might be interested in it; a UDC spokesman said its officials were consulted and support the plan.

The House bill would also require several federal institutions and agencies, ranging from the Department of Justice to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, to report to Congress on whether it is feasible for them to set up one or more charter schools.

These plans did not raise the same level of concern as the voucher proposal, but many local officials are suspicious of the idea.

For example, Barbara A. Bullock, the president of the Washington Teachers Union, argued that the result would be “draining money from the public schools, and not helping any of our students.”

A Groundbreaking Plan

If it were enacted, the scholarship proposal would be the first program ever to use federal dollars to help parents enroll children at the public, private, or religious school of their choice. It was added to the fiscal 1996 appropriations bill for the District of Columbia when the bill reached the House floor early this month.

Under HR 2546, low-income students could attend public or private schools in the capital city--or in nearby Maryland and Virginia districts--with “scholarships” of up to $3,000 financed by federal money and private contributions. Students could also seek smaller scholarships for transportation and other educational costs.

Mr. Ford, the City Council aide, hailed the plan as a likely boon to low-income parents, whom he described as desperate, but financially unable, to get their children out of the local school system. But many local officials and activists take a different view.

“It is not something designed to help our schools. Getting kids out of them does not improve them,” said Delabian L. Rice-Thurston, the director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, a local advocacy group.

Ms. Bullock predicted that private schools accepting vouchers “will be very selective and will siphon off the cream of the crop.”

Interstate Choice

However, logistical obstacles could significantly blunt the scholarship plan’s impact, and ultimately its greatest effect might be giving parents more choice among Washington’s public schools.

Officials of several local parochial and nonsectarian private schools have told Congress they would welcome vouchers as an opportunity to serve more children.

But a $3,000 voucher would not allow impoverished families to afford most of the Washington area’s private schools. About half the private schools in the area had 12th-grade tuition rates over $10,000 last year, and even the least expensive charge at least $4,000, according to Ritalou Harris, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington. Tuition for 1st graders ranged between $3,700 and $11,000, she said.

Some low-income students might be able to get additional aid from philanthropies or the private schools themselves. Most, however, could find their choices limited largely to public or parochial schools. The city’s 22 Roman Catholic elementary schools charge between $1,200 and $3,445 a year, while tuition at the six parochial high schools ranges from $3,750 to $9,100, archdiocese officials said.

The tuition charged for nonresident students by the six neighboring public school districts named in the bill ranges from $5,000 to $8,700 for elementary school students, and from $5,500 to $9,500 for high school. Their fees for special education are higher.

Moreover, officials in those districts said that they have little space to accommodate new transfers, and that none of the districts were consulted about the plan.

Even if enacted, the plan’s implementation would almost certainly be delayed by legal challenges focused on the legality of including religious schools and its unprecedented crossing of state lines. Its proponents clearly recognized this; the bill states that if the scholarship program “is enjoined or ruled invalid, the decision is directly appealed to the United States Supreme Court.”

Redefining Federal Role?

The plan’s impact on federal policy and the politics of education may be more profound.

“What it does is it changes federal education policy,” Maribeth Oakes, a government-relations specialist at the National pta, contended. “It’s the first time the federal government has targeted a specific district for an education voucher, and that’s a redefinition of the federal role in education.”

Not only would the program set a precedent, she argued, but it would establish a fund that could later be tapped for other students in other school districts.

Other observers said the broader implications were unclear.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said that enacting a plan affecting the capital city--where Congress enjoys broad power under the U.S. Constitution and whose lone congressional delegate cannot vote--is different from enacting a voucher bill that would apply to lawmakers’ constituents.

“It’s easier to take this step than it is to take the next one, that is, for vouchers in school districts all across the country,” he said.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., also made a special plea on behalf of the school-reform plan, which made it hard for Republicans to vote against it, noted Julie A. Segal, the legislative counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

From on High

Mr. Gingrich, who asked Rep. Gunderson, who is generally considered a moderate, to craft a school-reform plan for the city’s schools, told the Washington Post in February that he favored “voucherizing all money for D.C ... for education.”

The two Republicans told local officials at a hearing and a public meeting that they “would not impose anything without community support,” in the words of Mr. Gunderson. (See related stories, 5/24/95 and 9/6/95.)

However, congressional aides and observers say that the Speaker always intended to include a voucher plan in the package. A document outlining the House plan, released at a public meeting in August, notes lawmakers’ intent to create a “scholarship fund” for low-income families, without indicating whether it would use public funds or include private schools.

Mr. Gunderson and Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, have long opposed efforts to use public money to for private school vouchers. Indeed, Mr. Gunderson repeatedly insisted on the House floor that the proposal is not really a voucher plan because it is limited and includes private funding.

“We feel we have to have some sort of compromise on this issue for school reform to happen,” said Ted Rebarber, the legislative director for Mr. Gunderson, who said both he and Mr. Goodling supported attaching the scholarship proposal to HR 2546.

“There are some members of Congress who want a full-scale voucher program,” Mr. Rebarber said. “There are others that are opposed. That’s a formula for gridlock.”

Prospects Unclear

Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees District of Columbia appropriations, has opposed vouchers in the past.

But it is hard to predict whether the voucher plan, or the rest of the reform package, will be enacted. It is unclear how much appropriators--who are negotiating on the city’s entire budget and politically charged riders on issues such as abortion--will focus on education.

Congressional aides declined to speculate on the outcome of the House-Senate conference on the appropriations bill, which is scheduled to take place this week.

The Senate version of the appropriations bill contains no reform plans comparable to the House provisions. It would, however, create a seven-member commission to oversee the District of Columbia schools, essentially usurping the authority of the local school board. The panel would be required to create a comprehensive school-reform plan within a year. (See related story, .)

If the voucher plan survived, it could provoke a veto from President Clinton, who has supported choice among public schools but has rejected the idea of publicly funded vouchers for private schools.

“I think that’s still being debated,” Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said in an interview. “Clearly, the administration is dead set against the voucher proposal.”

He said other parts of the reform plan are acceptable, but the scholarships represent too much congressional meddling in local affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1995 edition of Education Week as D.C. Bill Stirs Debate Over Federal Policy