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House approves D.C. school-choice bill, but future remains cloudy

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The House approved a bill Wednesday to revive the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, even as the controversial school-choice measure faces an uncertain future.

Under the program, which began in 2004, low-income D.C. students are given federal money to help pay for private school tuition. Democrats closed the program to new entrants in 2009. House Speaker John A. Boehner’s bill — known as the SOAR Act — would reopen it, offering $20 million annually for five years for new scholarships, along with another $20 million apiece for D.C. charter schools and traditional D.C. public schools.

Boehner’s bill passed the House on a 225 to 195 vote, with all but nine Republicans present voting in favor and all but one Democrat opposed. Now it faces a steep climb in the Senate, where Democratic leaders are opposed and unlikely to bring it up as a stand-alone bill.

President Obama weighed in Tuesday, issuing a statement through the Office of Management and Budget saying that he “strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students.” Notably, Obama did not threaten to veto the bill, suggesting that the administration may be willing to consent on this front if Republicans compromise during negotiations on a broader education reform package.

House passage Wednesday followed an impassioned floor debate, with each side accusing the other of advancing an ideological agenda at the expense of D.C. students.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a strong opponent of the program, said that Republicans were “obsessed with depriving the District of Columbia of its home-rule rights.”

If the program is so effective, Norton asked Republicans, “why have you not brought a national voucher program to the floor? It’s the height of hypocrisy to put it on us.”

But Boehner (R-Ohio) called the scholarships a method for “injecting freedom and competition into a system that’s caught up in the status quo.”

A fervent champion of school choice, Boehner often becomes emotional when discussing the subject, and he repeatedly choked back tears Wednesday.

“This is not about me,” Boehner said. Though he has long supported the program, he said that he “had nothing to do with its success. For that we can thank the students and the parents.”

The White House said Tuesday that the program “has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.” Norton and other opponents — including Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the Washington Teachers’ Union — make the same case.

Proponents of the scholarships — including D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) and former mayors Anthony Williams and Marion Barry — dispute that point, while academic studies of the program have shown mixed results.

“The president cannot claim to be an education reformer while rejecting a program that raises graduation rates, increases parental satisfaction and boosts reading achievement,” said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice.

Before passing Boehner’s bill, the House defeated a Norton amendment that would have diverted the scholarship money to D.C. charter schools.

The Obama administration is eager to pass a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education measure, and Boehner reiterated Wednesday that he sees the D.C. program as an important step “if we’re serious about bipartisan education reform.”

Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, disagreed. “If you really care about school reform, you do it in a sustainable and systematic way,” he said, not with a measure that affects only a small fraction of District students.

Democrats also suggested that the GOP shouldn’t steer money toward private schools while also seeking to cut funds for Pell grants and Head Start programs.

Boehner’s bill would provide students from low-income families with as much as $8,000 to attend elementary school or $12,000 for high school — amounts that wouldn’t cover tuition at most of the city’s elite private schools but would cover the costs of many parochial schools. Boehner has been a strong supporter of Washington’s Catholic schools, some of which are struggling financially.

Some critics of the scholarship program contend that it is improper for public money to pay for students to attend religious schools of any kind.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that “a $100 million congressional giveaway to religious and other private schools is not going to help reduce the budget deficit. This wastes taxpayer dollars and undermines the public schools.”

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