Congressional Democrats Undermine School Vouchers in D.C.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

CONGRESSIONAL Democrats want to mandate that the District's unique school voucher program be reauthorized before more federal money can be allocated for it. It is a seemingly innocuous requirement. In truth it is an ill-disguised bid to kill a program that gives some poor parents a choice regarding where their children go to school. Many of the Democrats have never liked vouchers, and it seems they won't let fairness or the interests of low-income, minority children stand in the way of their politics. But it also seems they're too ashamed -- and with good reason -- to admit to what they're doing.

At issue is a provision in the 2009 omnibus spending bill making its way through Congress. The $410 billion package provides funds for the 2009-10 school year to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a pioneering effort that awards scholarships of up to $7,500 a year for low-income students to attend private schools. But language inserted by Democrats into the bill stipulates that any future appropriations will require the reauthorization of the program by Congress and approval from the D.C. Council.

We have no problem with Congress taking a careful look at this initiative and weighing its benefits. After all, it was approved in 2004 as a pilot program, subject to study. In fact, this is the rare experimental program that has been carefully designed to produce comparative results. But the proposed Democratic provision would short-circuit this study. Results are not due until June, and an additional year of testing is planned. Operators of the program need to accept applications this fall for the 2010-11 school year, and reauthorizations are complicated, time-consuming affairs. Indeed, staff members on various House and Senate committees scoffed yesterday when we asked about the chances of getting such a program reauthorized in less than a year. Legislation seeking reauthorization has not even been introduced.

If the Democratic leadership is so worried about process, it might want to review a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office listing the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been appropriated to programs whose authorizations have expired. Many of these programs get far more than the $14 million allocated to the Opportunity Scholarships. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was right to call out the Democrats for this back-door attempt to kill the voucher program. The attention should embarrass congressional Democrats into doing the right thing. If not, city leaders, including D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), need to let President Obama know that some 1,800 poor children are likely to have their educations disrupted.


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