After intermittent floor debate and a failed bid to craft a bipartisan compromise last week, the Senate postponed an up-or-down vote on legislation to provide private school vouchers for students in the District of Columbia.
With many Senate Democrats determined to stop the proposed five-year pilot program of “opportunity scholarships” for children from low-income families, two Democratic senators who had been straddling the fence on the bill had put forward a compromise plan as the measure came to the floor of the Republican- controlled chamber in midweek.
But after it became clear on Sept. 25 that the proposal by Sens. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., was a no-go, senators returned to the floor and approved a less stringent amendment put forward by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Debate was slated to continue late last week, but no further votes on the measure were expected until early the week of Sept. 29.
With Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams at her side on the Senate floor, Sen. Feinstein—one of a small band of congressional Democrats to unequivocally back vouchers for the capital city—urged her fellow lawmakers to back the plan.
“I want everybody to know this is your request and your program,” she said to the Democratic mayor, who has come under strong criticism from other city politicians for backing the pilot voucher plan. “I don’t know how many votes on our side of the aisle we will have for it, but I think it is a very important program to try.”
Ms. Feinstein’s amendment, approved by voice vote, would require that recipients of private school vouchers take the same standardized tests as their public school peers, and that teachers in participating schools have college degrees. It also would require an independent evaluation of the program within nine months, according to a spokesman for the senator.
Sen. Feinstein’s amendment did not go as far as one proposed earlier in the week by Sens. Carper and Landrieu. That plan called for subjecting private schools that accepted voucher students to the same testing, teacher-credentialing, and other accountability measures that Washington’s public schools are required to meet under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The plan also would have limited the vouchers to students in public schools identified for “improvement” under the federal education law, and would have ended the program in three years if voucher recipients had failed to meet the law’s criteria for adequate yearly progress. In addition, the two senators wanted a promise that the new language would be retained when the House and the Senate negotiated a final voucher program.
“Before we use taxpayer dollars to fund a private school scholarship program, we need to make sure that what we’re doing will raise student achievement and secure quality results,” Sen. Carper said in a statement announcing the proposal on Sept. 24.
Aides to Sens. Carper and Landrieu said that their proposal had been rejected by the White House and the Senate Republican leadership.
“When we try to make the scholarship program accountable to the same standards of No Child Left Behind, the White House and Republicans run from that,” said Bill Ghent, a spokesman for Sen. Carper.
A call seeking comment from the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had not been returned by press time.
The voucher plan is part of a broad funding bill for the District of Columbia that had cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee early last month. The measure would provide vouchers of up to $7,500 a year for tuition at private schools, including religious ones, with priority given to students in persistently low-performing schools.
In introducing the bill on the floor Sept. 24, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, stressed that it allotted $40 million in new money for “three sectors” of schooling in the nation’s capital: $13 million for the regular public schools, $13 million for charter schools, and $1 million for administrative expenses, in addition to $13 million for the voucher program.
“This is a balanced approach,” Sen. DeWine said. "[T]he most important supporters for this program are the thousands of low-income parents of schoolchildren in this city whose children are languishing in failing schools. These parents want an opportunity to try a new approach. I believe they deserve that opportunity.”
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., described the plan very differently, as he vowed last week to press his members to oppose the bill.
“It’s an unfortunate loss of revenue for our public school system, it sets a double standard with regard to the No Child Left Behind Act, and I think it sends a message to the rest of the country that somehow Congress is more supportive of vouchers, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.
Republicans hold just 51 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 48, plus one Independent who typically votes with the Democrats. Thus, GOP senators would need to attract support from the other side of the aisle to reach the 60 votes necessary to cut off a filibuster, should the Democrats decide to mount one.
Currently, Wisconsin operates a voucher program in Milwaukee, as does Ohio in Cleveland. Florida runs voucher programs both for students with disabilities statewide and for students from failing public schools, while a new Colorado voucher program is slated to get going next fall.