School Choice & Charters

D.C. Voucher Fight Waged Beyond Beltway

By Caroline Hendrie — September 24, 2003 5 min read
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In a controversial TV spot that aired last week in Massachusetts and Washington, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., comes in for a scolding from the head of a parents’ group that supports bringing private school vouchers to the nation’s capital.

As photographs of such champions of segregation as Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace flash on the screen, the ad’s narrator recalls being reassured by her mother while growing up in Little Rock, Ark., that the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was fighting against those who sought to “stop our race from getting a good education.”

“Senator Kennedy, your brothers fought for us,” Virginia Walden-Ford, an African-American mother who heads D.C. Parents for School Choice, says in the advertisement, where she appears surrounded by black schoolchildren. “Why do you fight against us? Are the unions really more important than these children?”

The ad targeting Sen. Kennedy—whose spokesman called the spot “outrageous"—was just one sign last week that the battle over federally financed vouchers for the District of Columbia had extended well beyond the Capital Beltway.

With the fight having shifted from the House to the Senate, major anti-voucher groups last week were urging their members nationwide to write, call, and visit their senators. Those groups include the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National School Boards Association, and the Washington-based advocacy group People for the American Way.

Issue Cast as National

Voucher opponents are framing the question of whether Washington should embark on a five-year pilot voucher program as an issue of national importance. The concern is that the initiative could pave the way for further expansion of private school vouchers, especially in the wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding such a program in Cleveland.

“We’re doing what we do on every education issue that we think is critical to the nation’s public schools, and that is to try to turn out local school board members in every congressional district in every state to make sure that their voice is heard,” said Marc Egan, the director of the voucher-strategy center of the NSBA.

Supporters of the voucher plan, meanwhile, are casting the issue as a primarily local one—notwithstanding the Kennedy spot and a similarly scathing print ad directed at Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who has supported vouchers in the past but has concerns about the current Senate version.

“It’s not a national issue to us,” said Kaleem Caire, a project director for Fight for Children, a pro-voucher organization based in Vienna, Va., that raises money for programs intended to benefit children. “This was an initiative launched by the city, in the city. It’s contrary to what you hear, that President Bush shoved this down their throats.”

The fight over vouchers—long one of the nation’s most divisive education issues—has intensified this month, as Congress has considered plans to provide federally financed tuition aid in the District of Columbia.

The Senate Appropriations Committee and the full House of Representatives approved versions of the measure this month, as part of broader bills appropriating funds for the city. While the bills differ in some particulars—for example, the House measure would spend $10 million annually to the Senate’s $13 million—both plans would provide vouchers worth up to $7,500 a year targeted at low-income Washington families with children in poorly performing schools. The vouchers could be used at private schools, including religious ones. (“Amid Wrangling, House Approves D.C. Vouchers,” Sept. 17, 2003.)

Calls Coming In

Senators who had not yet made up their minds on the measure last week, such as Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., were feeling the heat. “A lot of Delaware teachers are calling in opposition to the bill,” said Bill Ghent, a spokesman for Sen. Carper.

Pam Nichols, a spokeswoman for the Delaware State Education Association, said the NEA affiliate sees the voucher plan as a broad threat to public education because it would indirectly provide public funding for private schools.

The NEA ran print and radio ads around the country to try to pressure House members to vote against the Washington voucher plan. An NEA spokeswoman said last week that a decision had not been made on whether to revive the ads to help influence the Senate vote.

Meanwhile, the AFT was not directly sponsoring any ads as of last week. “We do have members of our union calling, writing, and personally lobbying members of Congress,” said AFT spokeswoman Janet Bass.

Currently, Florida operates several statewide voucher programs, and Ohio and Wisconsin run programs for the cities of Cleveland and Milwaukee. Colorado also has a voucher program that is just getting off the ground.

As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Sen. Kennedy vowed earlier this month to do all he could to block a Washington program from becoming law. Supporters of the measure said they hoped the TV ad would make him reconsider.

“The Kennedys have a legacy of supporting people,” Ms. Walden- Ford said in an interview last week. “But times they do change, and I don’t think Senator Kennedy is looking at what is involved now.”

But it was clear last week that the ad had not had the intended effect.

“It’s an outrageous ad, and I’m not going to dignify it with a response,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Kennedy. He said his boss had not yet decided whether to mount a filibuster to stall the bill on the Senate floor.

The anti-voucher group Parents United for D.C. Public Schools also denounced the Kennedy ad run by D.C. Parents for School Choice. “These people are shameless,” said Iris Toyer, a co-chair of Parents United. “To suggest that because he does not agree with them that Senator Kennedy is standing in the way of poor black children just sickens me.”

Voucher foes were equally critical of a full-page ad targeted at Sen. Landrieu that D.C. Parents for School Choice placed in The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. The ad took aim at Sen. Landrieu, who sends her two children to an expensive private school in Washington, after she sponsored an unsuccessful amendment in the Senate Appropriations Committee in July that would have placed certain testing requirements on Washington students using vouchers.

A spokeswoman for the senator declined to comment on the ad last week, and said that whether Ms. Landrieu supports the measure depends on what form it takes on the Senate floor.

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