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Posted at 12:19 PM ET, 03/30/2011

House likely to approve D.C. school choice bill, but future in limbo

The House is expected to approve a bill Wednesday afternoon that would revive and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) stake out opposing sides on the school choice plan.

Under the program, which began in 2004, low-income District students are given federal money to help pay for private school tuition. Democrats closed the program to new entrants in 2009. But Boehner’s bill – known as the SOAR Act – would reopen it, offering $20 million annually for five years for new scholarships, along with another $20 million apiece for D.C. charter schools and traditional D.C. public schools.

With the likely backing of nearly every Republican in the House and possibly some Democrats, the bill should clear the chamber with ease. But it faces a steep climb in the Senate, where Democratic leaders are opposed and unlikely to bring it up as a standalone bill.

President Obama weighed in on the debate Tuesday, issuing a statement through the Office of Management and Budget saying he “strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students.” Her argued that the program “has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.”

Proponents of the scholarship dispute that point, and academic studies of the program have shown mixed results.

“The president cannot claim to be an education reformer while rejecting a program that raises graduation rates, increases parental satisfaction, and boosts reading achievement,” said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice.

Notably, Obama did not threaten to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, suggesting that the administration may be willing to consent on this front if Republicans compromise during forthcoming negotiations on a broader education reform package.

Boehner, who has long championed school choice programs, began his own PR campaign for the SOAR Act Wednesday, releasing a video highlighting his support for the measure.

The video features the testimony of Lesly Alvarez, an eighth-grader who received a scholarship, who appeared before a House committee a month ago.

“Lesly is one of thousands of inner-city students who, were it not for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, would have had a hard time gaining access to a quality education,” Boehner says in the video, later adding that “if we’re serious about bipartisan education reform, we should start by saving the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

But Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who will lead the opposition to the bill on the House floor, said the voucher program steers money to a tiny percentage of District students while ignoring the city school system’s broader needs. The Washington Teachers Union opposes the measure for the same reason.

“Our highest priority must be to use limited taxpayer dollars to support programs that will truly meet all of our children’s educational needs. This bill does not do that,” Cummings said.

Before the final vote on the SOAR Act, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) will get a vote on her amendment to redirect the scholarship program money to the District’s charter schools.

While Norton and Mayor Vincent Gray oppose the scholarship program, some other city leaders – including City Council Chairman Kwame Brown and former mayors Anthony Williams and Marion Barry – support it.

Boehner’s bill would provide students with up to $8,000 to attend elementary school or $12,000 for high school – amounts that won’t cover tuition at many of the city’s elite private schools but do cover the costs of parochial schools. Boehner has been a strong supporter of Washington’s Catholic schools, many of which are struggling financially.

Some critics of the District’s school choice program and similar plans elsewhere contend that it is improper for public money to pay for students to attend religious schools of any kind.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that “a $100 million congressional giveaway to religious and other private schools is not going to help reduce the budget deficit. This wastes taxpayer dollars and undermines the public schools.”

By  |  12:19 PM ET, 03/30/2011

 
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