School Choice & Charters

Amid Wrangling, House Approves D.C. Vouchers

By Erik W. Robelen — September 17, 2003 2 min read
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By the slimmest of margins, the House of Representatives last week approved a school voucher experiment for low-income families in the nation’s capital.

The 209-208 vote on Sept. 9 was largely along party lines, with three Democrats breaking ranks to back the voucher amendment, and 15 Republicans opposed.

The next step in the increasingly fierce battle over federally financed vouchers for children in Washington is the Senate floor, where the outcome is uncertain. One crucial question is whether Senate Democrats will seek to filibuster the spending bill for the District of Columbia government— which in both chambers contains the voucher initiative—if they cannot muster the votes to eliminate it outright.

“He hasn’t made a decision,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., when asked whether his boss might invoke a filibuster. “I expect him to go to great lengths to defeat this on the Senate floor.”

The House bill contains $10 million in fiscal 2004 for the tuition vouchers, which would be worth up to $7,500, while the version approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month included $13 million.

The vote last week was the third on District of Columbia vouchers by House members in a matter of days. The same amendment was approved 205-203 on Sept. 5, but Democrats called for a revote.

Timing and Tactics

Also on Sept. 5, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s nonvoting representative in the House, proposed an amendment to strip out the $10 million in voucher funds, but it failed on a tie vote of 203-203. It would have succeeded if Ms. Norton, a Democrat, could vote on the House floor.

Some voucher opponents were upset by the timing of the Sept. 9 revote. It was held at the same time that Democratic presidential candidates were beginning a debate in Baltimore sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, and Democratic leaders had asked the Republican leadership of the House to reschedule it. All members of the Black Caucus except the chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., stayed for the vote. Reps. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., both contenders for the White House, did not vote.

In addition, Republicans kept the vote open well past the official time had expired. Ultimately, GOP leaders persuaded Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R- Ky., to reverse his “no” vote of Sept. 5, after they promised him the House would agree to Senate language requiring that only children in schools identified as low-performing under the No Child Left Behind Act could receive the vouchers. The House language as passed states that such children would be given priority.

In the end, 17 members—10 Democrats and seven Republicans— did not vote on Sept. 9.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed in [the] vote,” said Marc Egan, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, which opposes the voucher plan. “We think it’s pretty clear, though, that leadership had to go to great lengths and use all tactics available just to squeak it through, and I think that speaks loud and clear to just how much opposition there is.”

Delegate Norton warned her colleagues last week: “If you are willing to vote to give public money to private schools this year, you better be prepared to answer back home.”

But Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, replied: "[W]e hope that the mayor and the school board do a great job trying to improve the city schools. But while they are out there working,” he added, “why should we not take the chance ... of offering 2,000 children a chance to go to a better school?”

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