Hearing Pours Praise on Voucher Program for D.C. Students in Private Schools

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Senate's most outspoken supporter of the D.C. voucher initiative orchestrated more than two hours of uniformly glowing testimony for the program at a committee hearing yesterday and said the dissenting voices he invited turned him down.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, is pushing for reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides up to $7,500 a year in federally funded tuition to 1,700 D.C. children from low-income families to attend private schools.

Congressional Democrats, supported by teachers unions and other liberal education groups that generally oppose using public money for private education, included language in the recent omnibus spending bill that would end the program in 2010. Last week, President Obama proposed continuing the scholarships so the students currently receiving money can finish high school. The program would be closed to new students.

Lieberman wants to fully revive the program and said yesterday that he has a commitment from Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to bring the matter to the floor for debate and a vote this year.

Lieberman said the committee invited "no less than six witnesses" who oppose the vouchers but got no takers.

Among them were the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the nation's two major teachers unions. An NEA spokesman said President Dennis Van Roekel was unavailable.

An AFT spokesman said union President Randi Weingarten did not receive her invitation until late Friday and was unable to testify, given the short notice.

"Maybe they think they have the votes," Lieberman said afterward, referring to the coming legislative fight.

In a statement, the AFT said government's "time and energy would be better spent focusing on strengthening and improving the public schools that are its responsibility."

Also invited was D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who opposes vouchers but says he wants to see current scholarship recipients graduate from high school. A spokeswoman said he was "unable to attend."

Lieberman also included among the six invitees Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who do not oppose vouchers but have been cautious in their public statements. Fenty sent a letter to Lieberman on Monday saying he opposed any changes to the "three-sector approach" established by former mayor Anthony A. Williams (who did appear yesterday) that funded D.C. public schools, public charter schools and vouchers.

A Fenty spokeswoman said he had "a scheduling conflict." Rhee's office said it did not receive an invitation. The sixth invitee, the National Coalition for Public Education, could not be reached for comment.

The committee, which oversees District matters, heard testimony from two scholarship students, Tiffany Dunston and Ronald Holassie of Archbishop Carroll High School, who said the scholarships changed the direction of their lives. Latasha Bennett, whose 8-year-old son attends Naylor Road School, said he would be devastated if he had to return to Birney Elementary, his neighborhood public school in Southeast Washington, which she described as unsafe and poorly run.

Patrick J. Wolf, who studied the voucher program for the Department of Education, said that after three years on scholarship, students showed a statistically significant edge over public school counterparts in reading but not math.

Lieberman said that the evidence was compelling but that the program faced a fight.

"There are some powerful forces allied against this program," he said. "We happen to have the facts on our side. We also have justice on our side."

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