By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2003; B01
The U.S. House of Representatives approved taxpayer-funded vouchers for District children to attend private and parochial schools yesterday, including the program in a massive spending bill that faces resistance in the Senate.
School-choice advocates hailed passage of the five-year, federally funded education initiative as their most significant victory in years. Opponents have vowed to challenge the program in court.
Voting 242 to 176, the House approved a $328 billion catchall spending bill that includes private-school tuition aid for at least 1,700 low-income District students as part of the city's $5.6 billion 2004 budget. The measure's fate hangs on the Senate, which will consider the spending bill for 11 federal departments tomorrow but is unlikely to act until late next month.
The bill's fate in the Senate remains cloudy. Freighted with White House changes over media ownership, overtime rules and gun regulations, the package is under fire from minority Democrats as well as some fiscally conservative Republicans, who say the giant spending plan is larded with pork.
Nevertheless, House passage marked a milestone for conservative education reformers who since 1995 have tried to capitalize on GOP control of Congress and turn the District into a test case for public school competition. The House came closest to passing the first federal voucher program in 1998, before retreating in the face of a presidential veto threat.
"Today, Congress made history," said Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District, who like other supporters focused on the city's troubled public school system and argued that poor families deserve access to private schools similar to that of affluent families. "Parents need options, and children trapped in under-performing and failing public schools need other choices."
Advocates turned their attention to the final showdown in the Senate. "Low-income D.C. families are one step away from liberation from failing schools," said Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, which has support from national pro-voucher organizations.
Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, which has backed the voucher program with the American Council for Education Reform and conservative think tanks, said further delay as a practical matter would complicate efforts to administer the voucher program and match eligible students and private schools in time for next fall.
Opponents noted that the voucher provision was jammed into the must-pass spending measure even though the Senate never voted on the plan because of a Democratic filibuster, and the House cleared it by a single vote in September when House GOP leaders twisted lawmakers' arms and held open a vote for nearly an hour.
"Unfortunately, the omnibus bill is endangered by the worse abuses of the democratic process in congressional history," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who with other voucher opponents has said tax dollars should not be diverted from public schools at a time when national education reforms are going under-funded. "No wonder Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are balking."
The five-year measure includes $14 million a year for annual awards of up to $7,500 per child from families earning as much as 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or about $36,000 for a family of four. The funds include $1 million for administrative costs for an organization to run the program. The organization will be selected by U.S. Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige with input from Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). As a sweetener to the plan, federal officials also sent an extra $26 million this year to District public schools and public charter schools.
Opponents have pledged to file suit against the voucher plan, saying it would violate separation of church and state.
Overall for the District, Congress added $545 million in federal aid, including support for such ongoing programs as a $17 million college tuition program that helps District high school graduates attend out-of-state colleges at in-state tuition rates, and a $30 million installment for a sewer overflow construction project.
The spending bill included roughly $40 million in congressional earmarks to nongovernmental District projects. Members tucked away scores of aid packages to pet initiatives and favored nonprofit causes. Typical was $400,000 for abstinence education programs and $250,000 to the Best Friends Foundation, a pro-abstinence group founded in the District by Elayne G. Bennett, wife of former education secretary William J. Bennett.