The Senate took a step late last week toward creating a federal voucher program when its Appropriations Committee approved a pilot initiative for the District of Columbia.
The House was expected to vote on a similar plan last Friday.
In both chambers, the vehicle for private school vouchers is a spending bill that covers the nation’s capital. House appropriators have set aside $10 million for the pilot, and the Senate panel has allotted $13 million. While the measures differ in some particulars, both would target the tuition aid toward children from low-income families who attend poor-performing public schools in Washington. In each version, the vouchers would be worth up to $7,500.
Voucher supporters gained a political boost this year when key local leaders, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, came on board.
The fate of vouchers at the Senate committee level was uncertain last week until Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced that she had signed off on a deal with Republicans. A month earlier, she had signaled her willingness in concept to back a voucher bill, if crafted to her liking.
In a July 22 opinion essay in The Washington Post, the senator said she has grown concerned about the struggles of the 71,000-student District of Columbia school system.
"[I]f the mayor wants this program, it should be given the chance to work,” she wrote.
The Senate amendment to establish a voucher program was approved by a vote of 16-12 on Sept. 4, with a second Democrat, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, joining Sen. Feinstein in support. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was the only Republican who voted no.
A Senate Filibuster?
To help allay concerns of Ms. Feinstein, Republicans agreed to several changes, such as to establish joint authority for the voucher program between the mayor’s office and the federal Department of Education.
Opponents weren’t ready to throw in the towel after the Senate committee action.
“While this vote is a setback, I do not believe this voucher proposal will become law,” said Ralph G. Neas, the president of People for the American Way, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes vouchers.
Beyond the House vote, the main hurdle for the voucher pilot is the Senate floor, and the big question there is whether Senate Democrats will attempt to filibuster the spending bill.