Senate votes against reopening D.C. voucher program

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; B02

The D.C. voucher program's future appeared limited Tuesday after the Senate voted down a measure that would have reopened the initiative to new students.

The voucher program, which since 2004 has provided low-income D.C. students with as much as $7,500 in scholarships to attend private schools, has foundered in the Democratic-controlled Congress. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have signaled their opposition to the program, instead advocating charter schools as alternatives to poorly performing conventional public schools.

Tuesday's 55 to 42 vote was widely seen as one of the final chances for the program to be extended beyond the students who are already currently enrolled. Funding will continue for current students until they graduate high school, but has been cut off to new students for a year.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced an amendment to a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that would have extended the voucher program for five years and funded it at $20 million a year, opening it to new students. The Senate killed Lieberman's attempt to amend a different bill earlier this month.

"Many teachers in our nation's capital . . . are just not providing an adequate education to their students," Lieberman said. "We're giving these children the ability to save their own lives."

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have said they support the program but have not lobbied heavily to reopen it to new students.

More than 1,700 students participated in the 2008-09 school year. That number dropped to 1,319 this year because applications were closed to new students in the spring, and some students have graduated or left the program. Next year, the program is expected to cost about $13.2 million.

"Already, D.C. parents have a choice," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who spoke on the Senate floor against the program. "We have over 60 charters in the District of Columbia, and they're growing all the time."

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