Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and key GOP lawmakers unveiled a proposal last week to offer vouchers to students in schools that fail for six years to make adequate academic gains under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The action came days after a Senate committee passed a measure to raise the household-income cap for the the 2-year-old federal voucher program for the District of Columbia. The change would be limited to students already in the program.
The proposed new program would offer families vouchers worth as much as $4,000 for private school tuition, or $3,000 for supplemental educational services outside the regular school day. Secretary Spellings estimated that the $100 million competitive-grant program could reach some 28,000 students.
“The day of accountability, the day of reckoning is coming,” she said at a press conference with Republican leaders on the House and Senate education committees on July 18, when the plan was introduced in both chambers. “Accountability is hollow without more options for parents, and without real options for kids.”
The plan faced sharp criticism from leading Democrats and anti-voucher groups, including the two national teachers’ unions.
“School vouchers undermine education for all American children by draining resources from public schools that urgently need them,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “Washington Republicans are clearly just trotting out the same tired old vouchers gimmick.”
Advocates for the measure note that participation has been very low in the NCLB option to transfer from a low-performing public school into a higher-performing one, and point to both district reluctance and a lack of adequate public school options as factors.
President Bush included a voucher element as part of his original No Child Left Behind Act proposal in 2001, but he abandoned it in the face of stiff Democratic opposition.
The new proposal would offer competitive grants to states, districts, and nonprofit organizations, which then would provide the vouchers.
Republican lawmakers said they expected to take up the voucher proposal next year, likely as part of the debate over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Change for D.C.
Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee on July 13 passed a spending bill for the District of Columbia that would raise the income limit for students participating in the voucher program there. The House version of the bill, passed in June, does not include such language.
The change would raise the household-income limit from 200 percent of the poverty line to 300 percent. For 2006, the federal poverty level is $20,000 for a family of four.
The Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the voucher program, said that if the limit was not raised, more than 300 students would lose their scholarships during the next three years. One major concern of the proponents is that losing those students would undermine an ongoing, federally funded study of the voucher program.
A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as GOP Proposes New National Voucher Plan