House Panel Backs Funding for D.C. Voucher Program

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The controversial private school voucher program for the District of Columbia would continue for another year without any change in funding under a budget plan approved by a key House panel yesterday, despite recent questions about the program’s future with Democrats now controlling both chambers of Congress.

The full House Appropriations Committee on June 25 approved by a voice vote a spending measure that includes $14.8 million for the school voucher plan in fiscal year 2009, the same level as in the current fiscal year. The program, which uses federal funds to pay private school tuition for about 1,900 low-income families in the nation’s capital, still awaits action in the full House and in the Senate, where its budget has not yet been taken up in committee.

The program was narrowly enacted in 2004 when Republicans held majorities in Congress, with most Democrats strongly opposed. It provides vouchers worth up to $7,500 per year.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting representative in Congress, recently has called for the program to be phased out. Its formal five-year authorization expires next year. Ms. Norton, a Democrat and longtime voucher foe, suggested in a June 17 commentary in The Washington Post that a phaseout might involve a public-private partnership to continue tuition aid to current recipients.

President Bush requested $18 million for the voucher program in fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. Rep. Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican on the Appropriations panel, said during the committee deliberations that he would have preferred to see the budget plan meet President Bush’s proposal for additional funding for the Washington voucher program.

“We didn’t have the funds to do that,” Rep. Regula said. “But at least we had stabilization of that program, and it gives these students a chance to get another opportunity if they desire to do so.”

Mary L. Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va., said she was disappointed that the committee made no move toward phasing out the voucher program.

“We hoped at a minimum that there would be clarifying language ... to make it very clear that this is the last year of the voucher program, and that this money could not be used to expand the program and let in new kids,” she said. But no such language was included.

Ms. Kusler said voucher opponents wouldn’t stop here. “We’re looking at all sorts of options,” she said.

Proponents of the program note that it enjoys strong support from participating families and from some prominent Democrats in the District of Columbia, including former Mayor Anthony Williams and city council member Marion S. Barry Jr., also a former mayor.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat who spoke out against vouchers when he was a member of the city council, has indicated that he would not oppose continued funding for the program, at least for now.

The Appropriations Committee’s action comes as a recent, federally funded study found little to no overall difference in the standardized-test scores of students enrolled in private schools under the program and their peers who attend public schools in the city. (“D.C. Vouchers Have Scant Effect on Scores, Study Finds,” June 16, 2008.)

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