School Choice & Charters

Federal Plan for Vouchers Clears Senate

By Caroline Hendrie — January 28, 2004 7 min read
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As the U.S. Senate gave final congressional approval last week to a school voucher initiative for the nation’s capital, supporters vowed to have the program up and running by fall, while opponents pledged to do their best to derail it.

In a move billed as historic by proponents and disgraceful by critics, the Senate passed the $14 million program of private school vouchers as part of an omnibus spending bill that cleared the chamber on Jan. 22 by a vote of 65-28. The House of Representatives had approved the compromise spending measure in early December.

District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

At a Jan. 22 anti-voucher gathering on Capitol Hill, District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks against federal tuition aid for students in the capital city to attend private schools.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

Children from low-income families in the District of Columbia will be eligible for tuition aid of up to $7,500 to attend religious or secular private schools in the city under the bill, which President Bush said late last week that he looked forward to signing. Adopted as a five-year pilot, the initiative is the first federal program to finance private school vouchers.

“I’m very, very excited for the families that I serve,” said Virginia Walden-Ford, the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, a group that has long pushed for a voucher program in Washington. “This is incredibly historic.”

Invoking the same term, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige called the initiative part of a broader push for school choice that would “help create an educational system that makes no distinction between the poor and the privileged in terms of the quality of education received.”

“I hope that the D.C. experiment will be a model for the nation, showing how opportunity scholarships can not only help the children who take advantage of them, but also will force the public schools themselves to improve as they compete for students,” the secretary said.

But many public education groups expressed alarm that the nation’s capital would be joining Milwaukee and Cleveland as cities in which students can receive publicly financed tuition vouchers to attend private schools. Florida also offers private school vouchers to children with disabilities and those in low-scoring public schools, while Colorado’s planned voucher program has been put on hold as a legal battle over it continues.

“Vouchers have been shown time and again to drain dollars from public schools and fail to improve student achievement,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. “Today, the Senate let down America’s schoolchildren and taxpayers.”

National Education Association President Reg Weaver called the program evidence of “misplaced priorities” that amounted to a “gamble” on “private institutions not fully accountable to the public.” Added Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers: “We will continue to fight to ensure that this is not the first step toward a national voucher program, as we know it is intended to be.”

Repeal Effort Launched

Favored by most Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress, the voucher plan has provoked rancorous debate—both inside Congress and out.

Supporters have noted the long record of low test scores among District of Columbia schoolchildren, despite relatively high per-pupil spending, as evidence that poor families deserved an escape route from failing public schools. Critics have stressed the relatively small number of pupils that could be served annually—presumably 2,000 or fewer—and argued that the money would be better spent on the 66,000 students in the city’s regular public schools.

City leaders, too, are divided over the plan. Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, strongly supports it, for example, as does the city’s school board president and the head of the District of Columbia Council’s education committee. But other members of the school board and council oppose it, and Washington’s nonvoting representative in the House, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, has been an outspoken foe.

That rift at the local level has allowed supporters to portray the plan as a homegrown initiative driven by grassroots demand, while critics deride it as an effort by President Bush and his GOP allies in Congress to foist an unwanted program on residents of the capital city.

Picking up on that theme, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., announced shortly after last week’s vote that he would be pushing for legislation to repeal the program. Sen. Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, also joined many other critics in attacking the legislative tactics employed by Republican leaders of the Senate to get the measure passed.

“The administration couldn’t pass a voucher provision honestly, so they’ve attached it to an omnibus appropriations bill to avoid a vote to eliminate it,” the senator said through a spokesman. “The vast majority of the leaders in the District don’t want vouchers, and we intend to do all we can to stop vouchers from being imposed on the District.”

Voucher advocates saw matters differently. “There is no question that D.C.'s moms and dads want and need this program,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a national advocacy group based in Washington.

For supporters, the program’s passage in the Senate capped a long and bitter struggle. That fight began well before 1998, when Congress passed an earlier voucher initiative for the District of Columbia that was vetoed by President Clinton.

This time around, the House version squeaked through by one vote last September. But after winning approval by the Senate Appropriations Committee that same month, it bogged down amid talk of a Democratic filibuster before finally being stripped from a broader District of Columbia appropriations measure. It was then reinserted by a House and Senate conference committee formed to reconcile the two chambers’ versions of the spending measures.

‘Ready in the City’

The delay in winning Senate passage means that the program will not get as fast a start as it could have, supporters said last week. Still, they predicted that students would be using vouchers to attend private schools in Washington next fall.

“We’re poised to move forward because what we have been doing is planning for what we hoped for,” said Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, the superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which serves 33,000 students in Washington and part of Maryland.

Most of the Catholic high schools in the city are run independently of the archdiocese and are close to wrapping up their admissions processes for the year, she said. So they would be unlikely to be able to accommodate many, if any, voucher students for the 2004-05 school year.

But the archdiocese directly runs 24 elementary or K-8 schools in the city, as well as one high school, Ms. Weitzel-O’Neill said, and at present those schools have some 1,100 slots available.

A group of leaders from Washington’s nonpublic schools were meeting last week “to continue the conversation on the nitty-gritty of implementation,” Ms. Weitzel-O’Neill added.

Kaleem Caire, a leading local advocate for the voucher program, said he is raising philanthropic funding for “wrap-around” services for families in the voucher program. Programs to counsel parents on selecting and moving to a new school are on the drawing board, he said, as well as before- and after-school services.

“We’re ready in the city,” said Mr. Caire, the director of the D.C. K-12 Education Initiative, which is supported by a Vienna, Va.-based philanthropy called Fight for Children. “We’ve been working with schools since last spring.”

Of the more than 100 private schools in the city, Mr. Caire said he hoped that about a third could accept voucher students for the coming fall and half the next year.

Under the legislation passed last week, the voucher program would be administered under a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Department of Education and the Washington mayor’s office. The bill calls for grants to be made to one or more outside organizations to distribute the vouchers.

Priority would be given to students in schools defined as underachieving under the No Child Left Behind Act. Once a year, participants would have to take the same standardized tests given to pupils in the city’s regular public schools.

The vouchers in the capital city would be worth much more than the $2,700 per year in tuition aid available through Ohio’s 9- year-old voucher program in Cleveland, whose constitutionality the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2002. The Washington vouchers would also be higher than the roughly $5,800 in tuition aid that can flow to participants in Milwaukee’s pioneering program, which was enacted in 1990.

Billed as part of a “three-sector strategy” of improving education in the nation’s capital, the voucher money is part of a $40 million package that earmarks $26 million in extra funding evenly divided between the city’s regular public school system and its 38 charter schools.

While the Washington program would break new ground by using federal dollars to pay for private school tuition, it would not be Uncle Sam’s first time around the block with the voucher concept. For five years starting in 1972, the Alum Rock School District near San Jose, Calif., took part in a federally financed “voucher” experiment that wound up involving only public and no private schools.

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Federal Plan for Vouchers Clears Senate

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