After weeks in legislative limbo, a plan to provide federally financed, $7,500 tuition vouchers for children in the District of Columbia appeared late last week to be headed for passage in Congress.
A priority for Republicans but anathema to many Democrats, the program was rolled in to a huge, multipart spending measure that Republican leaders were expected to present for adoption in the House and Senate by early this week. Congress was working on a flurry of legislation last week in the hope of adjourning for the year by Thanksgiving.
If enacted, the program would be the first to provide private school vouchers paid for with federal funds.
The voucher initiative has been the focus of intense, largely partisan debate, both as to its substance and to the parliamentary tactics employed to advance and impede its passage.
That maneuvering continued last week. First, Senate leaders sidestepped a Democratic filibuster by stripping the voucher component from a broader spending bill for the capital city. Then, House and Senate conferees slipped the plan back into an omnibus, $285 billion spending measure that included the District of Columbia appropriations bill.
That chain of events, which meant that the $13 million voucher initiative had been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee but never brought to a vote on the Senate floor, led voucher opponents to cry foul. A similar outcry ensued after the House passed a $10 million voucher plan in early September by a one-vote margin.
“Basically, they did something in the dark that they couldn’t do in the light,” said Merwyn L. Scott, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, which strongly opposes vouchers. “We’re very upset.”
But Republicans, who hold majorities in both chambers, defended their tactics. Among them was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “I believe, very passionately, that providing 2,000 low-income children in D.C. a better education is the moral imperative of this body,” he said.
Voucher supporters also called opponents disingenuous for sending out a flurry of press statements claiming victory after the program was taken out of the District of Columbia spending measure that passed the Senate on Nov. 18. Besides the NEA, those anti-voucher groups included the National School Boards Association, the National PTA, and People For the American Way, a Washington-based liberal advocacy group.
Members of a House-Senate conference committee, which was convened to resolve differences between spending measures in the two chambers, agreed on Nov. 19 on a voucher program similar to the Senate version.
The conferees’ plan would earmark $13 million to provide low-income families in Washington with vouchers worth as much as $7,500 annually to pay tuition at religious or secular private schools. Priority would go to children in public schools defined as low-performing under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Pupils receiving vouchers would have to take tests given to students in the city’s public schools, and the initiative would be independently evaluated after five years, according to Senate aides familiar with the plan. The program would be administered under terms of a memorandum of understanding between the federal Department of Education and Mayor Anthony A. Williams of Washington, a Democrat.
The voucher money, as well as $1 million for its administration, would be part of a three-pronged, $40 million package that would provide $26 million in extra funding evenly divided between the city’s regular public school system and its 38 charter schools.
Pursuing strategies they have followed for months, opponents of the District of Columbia initiative last week stressed its national significance, while supporters continued to portray the program as Congress’ response to a local need. City politicians have been divided over the plan, with the mayor and the school board president behind it, but other school board members and much of the District of Columbia Council against it.