School Vouchers

Sunday, August 10, 2008

CONGRESS GAVE life to the D.C. school voucher program by a one-vote margin in 2003, and ever since, the program's been on life support. Each year, it fights for needed federal funds. Thankfully, it looks as if it will survive another year. But the time has come for Congress to stop playing political games and, instead, undertake a fair assessment of a program that gives D.C. families a say in their children's education.

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee included $14 million in next year's federal budget for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This would pay for two more years in which children from low-income families will be able to attend private schools. As has become customary any time Congress considers D.C. vouchers, opponents -- mainly teachers unions and some Democratic allies -- pulled out all the stops in a bid to kill the program. To their credit, Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who chair appropriations subcommittees, rebuffed efforts to dismantle the program. Neither is a fan of federally funded vouchers, but each properly deferred to the District's political leadership, which supports the program and the additional money it brings in for public and charter schools.

The version of the bill fashioned by Mr. Durbin's subcommittee insists that, before more money is appropriated, the program must be reauthorized by Congress. Voucher critics cheered the development, figuring that as long as Democrats control Congress, no such reauthorization would be forthcoming -- or, for that matter, even attempted. But even as supporters of D.C. vouchers, we find Mr. Durbin's suggestion perfectly reasonable. After all, the program was approved as a pilot; it is right to study impacts and outcomes before the program moves forward. That review, notwithstanding the animus of some toward vouchers, should be fair and deliberative. Democratic leaders such as Mr. Durbin, No. 2 in the Senate, having insisted on reauthorization, should use their clout to ensure an impartial examination.

In such a process, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) will need to step up to the plate. As a D.C. Council member five years ago, Mr. Fenty opposed the program; he supports it now, and he needs to clearly explain his change of heart. To do so, he need only point out how the nature of the debate has changed. Instead of a theoretical discussion about the supposed evils of vouchers, there is tangible evidence of their success. It was there in the Dirksen Building during deliberations of the Senate appropriators -- children whose lives have been changed by their ability to go to a good school.

Congress should have a good reason before denying this opportunity to others. It certainly ought not disrupt the education of children now benefiting from the program.

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