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School Vouchers Could Return in D.C.

Boehner, Lieberman offer legislation

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Monday, Jan 31, 2011  |  Updated 6:45 AM EDT
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School Vouchers Could Return in D.C.

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Shannon Woisnet up a sign in support of school vouchers in front of the U.S. Supreme Court February 20, 2002 in Washington, D.C.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton took issue with my recent assertion that charter schools were “foisted on the city by the House” by congressional Republicans. Her communications director Kim Atterbury tells me that when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich “approached Norton about vouchers for District schools” in 1996, Norton “explained to him that D.C. residents opposed vouchers but were open to charter schools.”

Norton, Atterbury said, then “cited a charter school law in D.C. that had produced only one or two charter schools. He agreed, instead, to strengthen charter schools in the District as an accommodation to home rule and to work directly with Norton on a charter school bill that she supported, and that has produced a highly successful alternative to D.C. public schools.”

And charters have been very successful. There are about 100 charters operating in the District today, serving about 40 percent of D.C. students. At least four more are expected to open this fall, and last year, more than 50 people expressed interest in creating their own new schools.

Support for charters and support for private school vouchers are often lumped together as similar steps toward education reform. The two, however, are very different. Charters allow the creation of new and specialized options under the guidance (and control) of the public school system. Vouchers use tax dollars to outsource schooling to private institutions.

But there is one similarity: Both were successful in D.C.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, crafted by Republicans in 2004 to provide a private school option to students from low-income families, showed promise, but was choked off by Democrats after they took control of the House in 2006. And less than two months after Barack Obama became president, his education secretary rescinded 216 scholarships that had already been promised.

Now, House Republicans want to restore the program. Putting aside the always nagging concern about federal meddling in local D.C. affairs, it’s hard to think of a reason not to support the effort.

Vincent Gray agrees -- or at least he did. In 2008, when Democrats were still in power, Gray as D.C. Council chairman appeared before a House subcommittee to testify in support of extending federal voucher funding. Now as mayor, and one elected on heavy support from teachers unions, Gray opposes vouchers.

The new legislation, offered by Speaker John Boehner and retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman -- a longtime advocate of District interests in the Senate -- would reauthorize the scholarship program, and also provide federal matching funds to D.C.’s public and charter schools. From a local tax perspective, it basically offers free scholarships to students in need.

There is no good argument to oppose this, as current Council Chair Kwame Brown and other D.C. leaders are saying. The only question is, will Gray stand up for the city’s students -- or stand with the teachers unions?

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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