Fate of D.C. Voucher Program Darkens

By Valerie Strauss and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 9, 2008

The groundbreaking federal voucher program that enables nearly 2,000 D.C. children to attend private schools is facing an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Congress and may well be heading into its final year of operation, according to officials and supporters of the program.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said this week that she is working on a plan to phase out the controversial D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first in the country to provide federal money for vouchers. Norton said she wants to proceed in a way that will not harm recipients. But she added that she regarded the program, narrowly approved in 2004 for five years by the then-Republican majority, as on its last legs.

"We have to protect the children, who are the truly innocent victims here," said Norton, who like many Democrats opposes vouchers as a threat to public school systems. "But I can tell you that the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program."

Most Democrats have traditionally opposed vouchers as a threat to the stability of public schools. The possible demise of the D.C. program is one more sign of the new directions K-12 education reform might soon take as a result of the 2008 election. Congressional Democrats have promised to overhaul -- if not eliminate -- President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind law. And next year, a new administration, one headed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is certain to bring its own ideas to the table.

Changes in District politics have also compromised the future of the aid program, which awards scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to low-income children for tuition and other fees at participating private schools. Early champions of the initiative -- former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), former D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D) and former D.C. Board of Education president Peggy Cooper Cafritz -- have all left office.

Williams's successor, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who is focused on an attempt to transform D.C. public schools, has not opposed continuation of the scholarships but has been far less robust in his support. When Williams endorsed the measure, Fenty, then on the D.C. Council, accused him of abandoning home rule.

"He sold out cheap," Fenty said then.

Fenty's office did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Scholarship supporters have appealed to Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that will take up the issue later this month. President Bush's budget includes $74 million to boost education in the District, with money divided among D.C. schools, public charter schools and the scholarship program, which is slated to receive $18 million. But with Norton opposed and Democrats headed into an election cycle, advocates say the scholarships face a tough road.

"There is a lot of Democratic Party politics at play this year," said Chavous, an outspoken advocate for school choice. "The party doesn't want anything in place where public money is utilized to support children in private schools."

Williams said in an interview Friday that there was "no question" the program was in jeopardy but added that he was confident Fenty would work to protect it.

In a statement Friday, Serrano, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairman of the subcommittee on financial services and general government, was reluctant to get between Norton and other D.C. Democrats. "My hope is that we will work out a solution that will have the broadest possible support," he said.

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