The White House announced Tuesday that President Obama was “strongly opposed” to a bill reviving and expanding the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, one day before the measure championed by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is scheduled for a vote on the House floor. But the White House did not threaten to veto the bill, suggesting that it could still pass as part of a larger compromise on education policy.
Boehner’s bill, known as the SOAR Act, would permit new entrants to a program that gives low-income District students money for private school tuition. Boehner helped create the program in 2004, but it was ended by Democrats in 2009, with only existing scholarship recipients allowed to continue. The bill would authorize $60 million a year for the next five years, with the funds evenly divided between the scholarship program, D.C. charter schools and traditional D.C. public schools.
In an official statement of administration policy released Tuesday, the White House Office of Management and Budget said: “While the Administration appreciates that H.R. 471 would provide Federal support for improving public schools in the District of Columbia (D.C.), including expanding and improving high-quality D.C. public charter schools, the Administration opposes the creation or expansion of private school voucher programs that are authorized by this bill.”
SAP’s on pending legislation opposed by the administration sometimes carry a warning, either that the president would veto the bill if it reached his desk, or at least that the president’s advisors would recommend that he veto it.
The statement on the SOAR Act contained neither warning, leaving open the possibility that Obama could agree to continue the scholarship program during broader education talks with Boehner and his fellow Republicans later in this Congress. Boehner has said that flexibility by Obama on this topic could help smooth negotiations on other subjects, perhaps including a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind bill.
The measure is expected to pass the House with ease Wednesday, but it is unlikely to come up as a standalone measure in the Senate, where Democratic leaders oppose it.
Boehner and other supporters of the scholarship program — including D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and former D.C. mayors Marion Barry and Anthony Williams — believe that it gives at least some disadvantaged students the chance to escape underperforming local schools. Boehner also argues that competition will force public schools to improve.
Opponents of the program, including Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), say that it steers attention and resources away from public schools in need and the city’s thriving charter school program. The two sides also disagree on whether the scholarships have been shown to improve student performance.
The White House statement Tuesday argued that “[p]rivate school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement.”