School & District Management

Choice Advocates See Hope in New Congress

By Alyson Klein — January 24, 2011 4 min read
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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

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.)

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Choice Advocates See Issue Rising on Congressional Radar

Events

Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
STEM Fusion: Empowering K-12 Education through Interdisciplinary Integration
Join our webinar to learn how integrating STEM with other subjects can revolutionize K-12 education & prepare students for the future.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
School & District Management Webinar How Pensions Work: Why It Matters for K-12 Education
Panelists explain the fundamentals of teacher pension finances — how they are paid for, what drives their costs, and their impact on K-12 education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management The Harm of School Closures Can Last a Lifetime, New Research Shows
The short-term effects on students when their schools close have been well documented. New research examines the long-term impact.
5 min read
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020.
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020. A new study examines the long-term effects on students whose schools close.
Jessie Wardarski/AP
School & District Management Video 'Students Never Forget': Principals Call for Help After School Shootings
School leaders are lobbying Congress for more financial support for schools that experience gun violence.
2 min read
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Doug Engle/Star-Banner via AP
School & District Management Opinion In School Leadership, Busy Is a Given. Chaos Is a Choice
There will never be enough time, money, or resources to solve every problem in education, so we must learn to operate within constraints.
Kate Hazarian
3 min read
Two hands attempt to hold chaos.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management How Sweltering Heat Disrupts Learning and What Schools Can Do
Extreme heat is becoming more common across the United States. Schools need to start preparing now.
5 min read
A boy cools off at a fountain during hot weather in Chicago, on June 16, 2024.
A boy cools off at a fountain during hot weather in Chicago, on June 16, 2024.
Nam Y. Huh/AP