School Choice & Charters

D.C. Vouchers: Idea Whose Time Has Come?

May 21, 2003 5 min read

It could well be the Year of the Voucher in Congress.

After numerous efforts over the years, the stars may be aligning for those who want to create a federal program to help families send their children to private school.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program. Republicans, by and large voucher proponents, control both chambers of Congress. President Clinton is no longer around to wield the veto pen.

And now, some key leaders in the District of Columbia—including Democratic Mayor Anthony A. Williams—are warming up to the idea of a pilot program here in the nation’s capital.

“I think there’s a better chance to [enact] this thing now than ever before,” said Vic Klatt, a former top education aide to Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

At the same time, he cautioned: “Do I think it’s a slam dunk? No, I don’t.”

If a voucher plan makes it through Congress, it will likely be an experimental program for low-income families, probably just for the District of Columbia, analysts say. The Bush administration has been talking with Mayor Williams and other local Washington officials to devise a plan they will support.

"[Any] proposal that comes forward has to come forward in concert with the District, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” said Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok.

Other local notables to voice support for vouchers include Kevin P. Chavous, a Democrat who chairs the city council’s education committee, and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the president of the school board.

Yet stiff opposition remains from some of the city’s political leaders, including Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democrat who is the District’s nonvoting representative in the House. She insists that Washington families don’t want vouchers.

“There is one federal, always-inadequate pot [of funding],” she said during a House Government Reform Committee hearing on the issue May 9, “and what would go to private schools would reduce that public pot, pure and simple.”

President Bush has proposed spending $75 million in fiscal 2004 for a “choice incentive fund,” with a portion of that money to be set aside for a pilot voucher program in Washington.

Mr. Williams, who recently reversed his previous stance against vouchers, explained his new thinking at the House hearing.

“We’ve got thousands of children who aren’t getting the education they should be getting,” he said. “And I as the mayor of our city can’t say no to thousands of young people and their parents, and tell them they ought to wait for more choices and opportunities, but they’re not available.”

Mr. Williams said he was pleased that officials from the federal Department of Education “have met with us and asked us to join with them in designing a program.”

He outlined key principles he wants in a voucher program, such as targeting it to children from low-income families who attend low-performing public schools, limiting choice to private schools inside the city (rather than the Virginia or Maryland suburbs), and requiring those schools to admit any eligible students until the schools reach capacity.

“The goal is not to ‘cream’ the best and brightest students, but rather to give the neediest children opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Mr. Williams said.

The mayor also wants something else: extra cash for the District’s education system. He’s asking for more federal support for Washington’s sizable array of charter schools, and he’d also like the federal government to kick in additional special education dollars equivalent to what a state government would contribute.

Asked whether the Bush administration would consider giving the city extra education aid beyond the voucher dollars, Undersecretary Hickok replied: “It’s certainly something we’re willing to talk about. It’s way too soon to take anything off the table.”

Some say the mayor’s support may not alter the political equation on Capitol Hill.

“Quite frankly, I’m not certain they have the votes to get vouchers,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a staunch opponent. The toughest hurdle is expected to be the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster.

“Mayor Williams can be for it all he wants; he doesn’t have any votes around here,” he said.

But backing from the mayor could help grease the wheels, others argue.

“It’s important,” said Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., a longtime supporter of a voucher pilot. “He’s the mayor of the city, and it dilutes somewhat some of the criticism in the past that this is being forced upon the city of Washington.”

The Supreme Court last June upheld the Cleveland voucher program in Zelman v. Simmons- Harris. The first post-Zelman boost for voucher advocates came when Colorado’s GOP governor signed a voucher bill in April.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Louisiana legislators recently killed several voucher bills.

In Congress itself last month, the House rejected by comfortable margins a couple of voucher-related amendments to a bill reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

A union lobbyist pointed to those votes as a hopeful sign for those against vouchers for Washington. “Vouchers were already put forward and roundly defeated,” said Randall J. Moody, the manager of federal policy for the National Education Association.

But Mr. Klatt, the former GOP aide and now a lobbyist for Van Scoyoc Associates, in Washington, said the comparison is imperfect.

“Special education is a very different animal than the rest of education policy,” he said, “and you get a whole different set of dynamics there.”

In the Spotlight

All eyes, in the end, will be on some of the centrist-leaning Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., said he’s opposed. “It just takes away the focus of really concentrating on improving the public school system, so there are no bad schools,” he said in a Capitol hallway interview.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., is among the undecideds.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m open. I’ve always been open [to vouchers]. I just want to make sure it doesn’t erode the funding for public education.”

At the House hearing, Delegate Norton said any additional federal dollars for the city should help expand charter schools and support other public schools in the 67,500-student system.

“It can’t be right to send funds to private alternative schools when the city is leaving its own successful, parent-sanctioned alternatives cut and chronically underfunded,” she said.

But Mr. Chavous, the local council member, argued that the added competition from vouchers would help spur improvements in public schools. That said, he, too, wants to make sure Congress provides more resources for charters and other public schools as part of the plan.

“No matter what we do with choice in this city,” he said in the House hearing, “the lion’s share of our children ... will still be in our traditional school system.”

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