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Senators Unveil New Bill to Extend D.C. Vouchers

By Erik W. Robelen — July 31, 2009 2 min read
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It’s going to be an uphill climb—maybe I should say up-mountain climb, as in the Rockies—but a bipartisan group of six senators yesterday introduced a bill to save the voucher program for the District of Columbia.

Leading Democrats in Congress have long opposed the program, and with their party firmly in control of both chambers, and with a Democrat in the White House, many analysts believe the D.C. voucher program’s days are numbered.

President Barack Obama has called for something of a middle ground between the program’s friends and its foes, who would like it shut down yesterday. He wants to phase out the program, essentially allowing students already enrolled in private schools with the vouchers to finish, but not admitting any new applicants. Meanwhile, spending legislation approved earlier this year contains language saying the program would end after the 2009-10 school year unless reauthorized by Congress.

And reauthorize the program is exactly what the group of senators, including Independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connect, is hoping to do.

“This program, while not the entire solution to the problems that plague the D.C. public schools, should continue to play a valuable role in improving the educational opportunities for disadvantaged students in the District,” said Sen. Lieberman in a July 30 press release.

The co-sponsors of the reauthorization measure include Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio, and John Ensign of Nevada.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was established as a five-year pilot in 2004, and served some 1,600 low-income students as of this past school year. It’s become a major flashpoint of debate nationally between voucher supporters and opponents.

The bill would make a few changes to the program, according to a summary in Sen. Lieberman’s press release.

First, it would increase the maximum voucher level from $7,500 to $9,000 for grades K-8 and $11,000 for high school. It would add a sibling preference “so as not to separate families.” It also requires schools that have been operating less than five years to have proof of adequate financial resources, and requires “adequate financial systems, controls, and policies to ensure that funds are used in compliance with the program.”

And, it requires that “core” teachers of the voucher students have a bachelor’s or equivalent degree.