D.C. vouchers on life support

Monday, December 14, 2009

IT IS DISTRESSINGLY clear that congressional leaders never really meant it when they said there would be a fair hearing to determine the future of the District's federally funded school voucher program. How else to explain language tucked away in the mammoth omnibus spending bill that would effectively kill the Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program?

Deep in the folds of the thousand-page 2010 spending bill, which wraps together six bills, is language that (thankfully) would continue funding for students currently in the program but close it down for new students. Also included are onerous requirements about testing and site visits.

Contrary to claims of this being a compromise, the measure is really slow death for a program that provides $7,500 annually to low-income students to attend private schools. The number of students participating in the program has already shrunk from more than 1,700 to 1,319, and the nonprofit that administers the scholarships has said that it may have to pull out because the conditions would be untenable. It's also possible that some schools that now enroll voucher students could be forced to shut down.

Key lawmakers in the appropriation process have been, at best, disingenuous about their intentions, thus placing the program's advocates in their current no-win situation. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) made encouraging comments about allowing new students but, despite his clout as majority whip, did nothing to make that happen. Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) said that he didn't want to usurp local control, even as the mayor, the schools chancellor and a majority of the D.C. Council lobbied for the acceptance of new students.

If Congress, no doubt egged on by its allies in the teachers unions, is so intent on killing this program, it should be upfront in accepting the responsibility. Accordingly, we would urge Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to press for a vote on their bipartisan measure for a reauthorization of this program.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company